The Last Great American Dynasty inspired more than just Lucky… ‘A Marvelous Conversation’ with artist Mary LaGarde

I spoke with artist Mary LaGarde yesterday on Instagram Live about her painting A Marvelous Time, inspired by Taylor Swift’s song, The Last Great American Dynasty. My book, Lucky, is inspired by the same. I knew we’d have lots to chat about!

Kristina: The Last Great American Dynasty is such a fabulous song— so vivid and inspirational. Why don’t we start by you telling us a little more about your painting!

‘A Marvelous Time’ oil painting by Mary LaGarde (copyright Mary LaGarde)

Mary: It all started in February of this year— on Valentine’s Day. My husband is a leukemia survivor and has a compromised immune system, so we were unable to go out for the holiday due to the pandemic. Instead, I decided we would have cocktails in the Tiki Hut in the backyard! I concocted a drink called “Cupid’s Arrow” and brought my little boom box out with us to the back. We put on a playlist— Hipster Radio, to be specific; it’s cool, smooth, and on Pandora— when all of a sudden Taylor’s song came on, “The Last Great American Dynasty.”

Now, I hadn’t heard of this song. I didn’t know Taylor Swift wrote this song, or anything about it. All I thought was, “Oh my gosh! The lyrics of this song are incredible. I wonder if Taylor Swift wrote this song. It kind of sounds like her!”

Sure enough, I went onto Pandora and found that she did write it. We listened to the song again and I became so excited. “I have got to paint this story,” I thought. There is so much to it, and Taylor has painted such a beautiful picture with her song. I started to get excited about dovetailing off this whole world— the light and the dark of Rebekah’s life— and wanted to showcase the characters of her epic story.

I think Taylor has really outdone herself with folklore and evermore. She seems to be really coming into herself with both of these albums. I will forever be a Swiftie now!

Kristina: Me too! I agree, I think that folklore and evermore have taken Taylor Swift to an entire new level with the deep themes and story telling (and not just stories of herself, anymore). The story of Rebekah Harkness was a great one for her to start with, in my opinion, because of all of the crazy parallels between the life of Taylor Swift and Rebekah Harkness. Also, Rebekah Harkness is an endlessly fascinating person, as you have also found out!

Mary: Not too long ago, I got to go up to Holiday House in Watch Hill. I sat there and tried to get the feel of the area— where the wind was blowing, where the sea was crashing in, the shoreline and the rocks, the view. I played her song while sitting there watching the waves. It was magical. I feel so lucky I was able to do that. I wanted to make sure I carried across that feeling, the energy in Holiday House.

Kristina: You did such a beautiful job! I actually found Mary on Instagram, through this painting. She is actually giving away prints of her painting on Instagram throughout the next few weeks, so make sure you are following her if you aren’t already. You need to be apart of this giveaway because her painting is truly iconic!

Side note, just so everyone knows how we know so much about Rebekah… Rebekah Harkness (aka Betty West) was notorious when she was alive and was frequently splashed upon the front page of the newspaper. After she passed away, Craig Unger wrote a biography about Rebekah entitled “Blue Blood.” It is the chronicle of Rebekah’s entire life, as well as the West family and the Harkness family. It’s jam-packed with tons of juicy information. But, there was only one edition ever published of “Blue Blood.” Now, it’s a rare book. It is almost impossible to find. Mary was trying to find a copy and wasn’t able to…

Mary: No, I wasn’t, but your book is a great substitute! Your book, Lucky, is awesome.

Kristina: Thank you so much! I got access to Blue Blood at a circulation-only library downtown Chicago, and I was reading it and reading different articles about Rebekah… I was like, I have access to information that not everyone is able to access. So, that was part of what drew me originally to this story and what inspired me to want to memorialize Rebekah’s story through Lucky, because it is a powerful story. It is a story that many people are interested in because there are a lot of fans of Taylor Swift and many people intrigued by the story of Rebekah Harkness.

Kristina: I would love to talk about all of the different people in your painting. You have immortalized some of the fascinating characters that have shown up throughout Rebekah’s life.

Mary: First up, is Robert Joffrey. Joffrey, of course, is world-famous for his ballet company. Rebekah actually sponsored Joffrey’s original ballet, and the dancers had a “summer camp” at Holiday House. Eventually, Rebekah decided that she wanted to have the Joffrey Ballet renamed as the Harkness Ballet, which he refused, so she retaliated by stealing all of his dancers!

Kristina: It caused a lot of drama in the dance world too. Before connecting with Joffrey, Rebekah was planning on making dance her legacy. She wanted to be known as the premier patroness of the ballet and may have let her own ego get in the way here a bit. Had she worked with Joffrey and continued to support him, her story may have had a different ending.

Mary: She ended up taking all of his dancers and traveling with the ballet all over the world, actually. She put them up in the finest hotels, gave them caviar and champagne… she offered these ballerinas the dream, everything they ever wanted. You probably know more from the Unger book which countries they went to.

Kristina: They went to quite a few different countries, but the one I talk about in Lucky is Egypt— and Rebekah took the dancers on a trip to see all of the sights, like the pyramids. I think the most interesting takeaway from the international touring, however, is that Rebekah didn’t necessarily have the the talent or leadership skills necessary to lead the ballet… she just poured money into the sets, costumes. The performances were extravagant, but fell sort-of flat. The press and reviewers didn’t have the nicest things to say about the tour. Rebekah got a lot of flack for it.

Mary: Right, she fancied herself a ballerina herself. She was quite an amazing dancer. Do you see Jose Greco in the painting? He was a famous flaminco dancer, and she hired him to train her to dance.

It does kind of sound mean what she did, but still, this was a male-dominated time. Women were not in charge of ballets, or anything. I think Rebekah took that on as a challenge. She was the one who got decide what she wanted to do with her money, and she chose to put her money into the arts. I think that’s a plus, a great takeaway. Not all of it has to be bad, right?

Kristina: Definitely not! Another thing I want to say, in regards to that, just because the press (or an author) says something about someone doesn’t make it unequivocally true. I think that is a lesson Taylor Swift has learned throughout the years… the stories written about her are not always the best reflection of who she is as a person. All we have left of Rebekah now are the newspaper articles, raunchy books, and scandalous tales… but, I think she did what she thought she was supposed to do. The most heartbreaking thing about her story, because it ends in such an epic tragedy, is that she was doing what felt right to her.

Mary: This is true. One thing I really appreciated about her, in regards to the dancers for example, she didn’t care about their race, size, hair color, age, or anything. She just cared to support the arts. If you could play the part, she was game to bring you on. I love that about her.

You know, she liked yoga… so, she brought in a world-class yoga instructor, B. K. S. Iyengar. I had to put him in the painting because I think he was a spiritual voice for her. He likely mellowed her. He probably cultured her, brought more color into her life, and helped create a more dynamic and centered nature to her personality.

Just because you have money, doesn’t mean that people will be falling over themselves to do stuff for you… in fact, sometimes it’s the opposite. You have to be quite focused when you have money to make sure you hire the best people to help you live your dream. Her dream was not attainable by not of people because

Kristina: I agree, but I also think that something that caused Rebekah’s downfall was always putting her trust and faith in other people, rather than trying to find answers within herself. She always listening to the sycophants, always around, telling her what she wanted to hear and manipulating her. So, I think that when someone has money, those type of people start coming out of the woodwork.

Mary: It’s just like winning the lottery! You hear all of these crazy stories— like when someone wins the lottery and then their long-lost cousin shows up with a dire illness… and then after you give them money, they turn out not to be your cousin! There are always people who will try to play on your sympathy, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. Rebekah was definitely a victim to that.

Kristina: For sure. I am glad, however, that you included B.K.S. Iyengar. I know the impact yoga has had on my life…

Mary: Me too!

Kristina: I can only imagine what impact learning yoga from one of the greatest yogis of all time had on Rebekah.

Mary: Agreed, it most have been pretty intense. We also have Jerome Robbins hiding behind B.K.S. Jerome did West Side Story, and he was a friend of hers and helped her a lot. We also have the famous Andy Warhol, whom Rebekah hired to do set designs. He enjoyed partying and was her party buddy as well. He probably isn’t quite as well known as, my favorite, Salvador Dali.

Kristina: and the cat!

Mary: The cat is actually a Ocelot named Babou. A Colombian dignitary or ambassador gave it to Dali as a gift, maybe in exchange for his work, I’m not sure exactly.

Dali was the type of person who always wanted to be on display. He felt that every breath he took was art, an expression of life itself. He was an artist from childhood. He wasn’t formally trained until later in life. If you ever get down to St. Petersburg, Florida, you need to check out the Salvador Dali museum! He has done remarkable work with surrealism. Warping time is one of his most famous things— with the clocks that drip and the Persistence of Memory.

Persistence of Memory— Salvador Dalí

He is the type of artist who also has different skills and backgrounds: like jewelry creation. Rebekah is wearing a brooch in my painting, I think it is called the Starfish of the Sea.

Also, all the black and white in my picture symbolizes something of yesteryear… of people who are no longer with us, but left their legacy with us. I have lots of little symbols throughout my painting.

Kristina: Yes, I read about some of them in your blog! It is so fascinating!

Mary: Do you see this dancer back here? That is Patrick Swayze. If you’ve never seen the movie Ghost with Demi Moore, you should check it out. Patrick Swayze is a famous actor from Texas. He grew up just a normal, All-American guy. He played football, but ultimately hurt himself and was unable to continue playing. Patrick’s mom was a ballerina, and she influenced him for rehab purposes. Patrick Swayze actually got a scholarship that Rebekah financed, for him to go the Harkness Ballet and dance for her.

Kristina: I did not know that!

Mary: It’s such a small, unusual world! Next to Rebekah, we have Scevers.

Kristina: Bobby!!!

Mary: Yes, Bobby. Her lover for about 25 years. He was a homosexual and stayed with her for quite a long period of time. He, apparently, really loved her. I know there were plenty of controversies regarding that, which your book goes more into!

Kristina: Yeah. You know, with Rebekah’s relationships… I could have an entire book about those in and of themselves, but I decided to try to more skim the surface of them. I wanted to respect Rebekah and her past lovers, and I realize that none of the information about her love life from her biography used her as a direct source.

So, the stories that are told about you are not always the truth… but I think that Bobby is special because he was one of few people who was with her on her death bed. He may have been the very last person Rebekah saw before she passed away. He clearly had a big impact on Rebekah’s life because she kept coming back to him. You know, she tended to marry doctors, but she kept coming back to the homosexual Bobby Scevers. It really is interesting. I know Rebekah’s children appreciated Bobby being there when she passed.

Mary: It’s rumored that Bobby became depressed when she passed away because he missed her friendship and their love. Aww, such a sweet story. It’s so funny how you see someone like Rebekah being such a harsh, aggressive, man-type of power house… she’s a masculine-female in a male’s world. But she also has a sweet, compassionate side of her too.

I wanted to showcase all of Rebekah’s influences: spiritual, artistic, dance, philosophical, and love.

I also find it fascinating that she did wonderful for so many different dancers of color, like Alvin Aley, who was an incredible dancer. Back in this time, black dancers didn’t have a big shot at getting to the main stage. Rebekah gave them that the leg up… Alvin is one of the most famous black dancers she brought up. He helped her choreograph some of her dances, he traveled with her.

Rebekah also wrote music. She was involved in every facet of art. She donated a lot of money to medicine, to help people with disabilities.

It is so funny that she had such a wild side to her— in fact, she once got kicked off of a cruise ship! She got caught skinny-dipping, she stripped down to nothing!

Kristina: She threw a plate at the conductor of the Philippines welcome band… so much scandal!

Mary: It’s all so scandalous! Of course, that brings me to the key lime dog! Which, I read was a cat… not a dog, at all. Tell me, what have you learned about that from Craig Unger’s book?!

Kristina: Yes! So it was not a dog, it was a cat. It also was not her neighbor’s, but a house guest’s! Rebekah was always playing pranks on people, that was something she was known for, but in this particular instance, the house guest did something that Rebekah didn’t like… then Rebekah dyed the cat green as revenge!

Mary: No way!! How funny! Here’s another part of the painting I wanted to talk about, the Chalice of Life.

The Chalice of Life, illustration by Om Nair

“That’s odd,” you may think, “what is that for?” Rebekah actually had this chalice created for her by Salvador Dalí, and I actually really like how you explained the chalice in your book.

Kristina: Thank you! My book is historical fiction, so I obviously took some creative liberties as I am not totally sure what happened. I believe that Dalí was encouraging Rebekah to think about her immortality, and I think they may have had some conversations about the circular nature of life and reincarnation. Here is the excerpt from Lucky:

Much of the time Dalí spent in Watch Hill was under the guise of work. That summer, he began construction of a special, custom piece of art for Rebekah. The Chalice of Life: and 18-karat yellow gold urn, adorned with twisting tree roots, diamond branches, and sapphire butterflies. The urn twirled mechanically, like a tiny dancer in a music box. One day, the urn would hold Rebekah’s ashes.

“Dalí’s Chalice of Life is Mae West’s (Rebekah’s) Holy Grail: it’s how you live in beauty forever!”

Dalí had a strong belief in reincarnation: the transmigration of the soul after death. When we was young, his parents taught him that he was the incarnation of his older brother— a boy also named Salvador, who died nine months to the day before Dalí was born.

After Dalí told Rebekah the story of his family, he easily convinced her that she had been an Egyptian princess in her past life. “Cleopatra!” Dalí proclaimed. “In the Chalice of Life, Mae West will be a princess in her next life, too.”

Lucky, Kristina Parro

Mary: I enjoyed learning that her daughter— whom with she had a tumultuous relationship— found she couldn’t fit in the urn. The chalice was too small! Her ashes were disposed of in a different manner, I guess, and the chalice went to Japan.

Kristina: Yes! It was sold off, as part of her estate. I think that is part of the true tragedy of Rebekah’s story. She pictured herself having a dignified end; she imagining her essence twirling around in the gilded chalice for eternity. The reality of her situation, however, was much different than she had pictured. Her remains were taken home in a plastic grocery store bag, as she didn’t fit into the urn. Then, with all the controversy surrounding her will and estate, I think the chalice was sold a few weeks after her death. It’s so interesting to think about. She spent so much money, thought and time on the Chalice. It was part of her legacy, and it didn’t play out like she expected it to.

Mary: One thing I liked about your book was that you talked about mathematics and the Golden Ratio. I don’t know what is truth or fiction with that, but I did use the Golden Ratio, actually, in this painting. I often do that with my works. So, to me, it is really full circle. Your book beautifully describes the Golden Ratio, and it is something we use so much in classical art. It works sort of like a conch shell— how things keep going inwards and inwards and inwards, or outwards and outwards and outwards into infinity.

Kristina: The Golden Ratio is such a beautiful thing to think about. I originally started learning more about the Golden Ratio when I was analyzing folklore’s lyrics, while I was probing into the pieces, myths, and stories. Somehow, I came across this book about the Golden Ratio by Mario Livio. It is just fascinating to me how, in folklore and Blue Blood, there are so many parallels and references to things related to the Golden Ratio. Then, too, Salvador Dalí— something that is interesting about him, is that there is quite a bit of footage available of him on YouTube— and towards the end of his life, he became obsessed with the Golden Ratio. He thought it held the key to understanding the secret of life. There were just so many weird and serendipitous connections throughout the whole web I had uncovered, that I can’t help but really feel I stumbled upon something profound.

Mary: There is, in fact, in the museum in St. Petersburg a lot of talk about Dalí’s interest in the Golden Ratio. He is most famous for surrealism, but later in his career, he really went back to the classics. He became more religious, spiritual. That’s when he started painting huge canvases. They are beautiful. It is worth taking the time to see some of those of those works.

One last thing! I want to talk about the cards. Rebekah folded her hand, she had bad cards. You can see the little “hmph” in her face. She isn’t happy with the hand she was dealt— symbolically and literally in the painting— and Dalí’s face/expression is like “ha! I won!” Dalí has a flush for his hand of cards, but Taylor Swift, she has a full house. It means she has a full house in Holiday House; she has a full house of memories with everyone visiting and all of their stories; and that Taylor has many more stories to tell. She’s letting us see that, she’s letting us see that part of her world. She’s expanding to new horizons— philosophical, artistic. I just am so happy for her! It’s so remarkable. She is an inspiration to artists, authors, philosophers, visual artists, and everything in between. I was really happy to join in. This painting was truly a work of love.

Kristina: I can tell. The detail and deep meaning is so precise and evident. You have truly done a tremendous job capturing this story. I am quite honestly obsessed with your painting. Is this your personal painting? Is it for sale? What is the situation?

Mary: I have had people interested in purchasing it, but I’m holding onto it at the moment. I eventually would like this to go to Watch Hill. I think this piece belongs in Holiday House. So, Taylor Swift, if you’re out there and reading this, CALL ME!

Kristina: CALL ME, TOO!

Mary: Call her, too! We want to bring forward your stories. I may be selling prints down the road, but I am giving away prints right now on my Instagram. Each one is signed!

Kristina: Yes! Do not miss Mary’s giveaway contest of this painting on Instagram! It is going on for the next few weeks. Make sure you follow Mary’s instagram page!

Mary: Yes! And I actually have a blog, too. It is! I have a blog about this painting that explains each character in more detail.

Kristina: I loved reading that blog. I also think it is so cool that you went to Watch Hill and experienced the energy of Holiday House. I think that place is fascinating— it is so powerful, in terms of universal energy exchange— that that particular place has lured so many of time’s most high-energy people over the last 150+ years. It makes me think about the time-space boundary… and I think that this story brings up philosophical thoughts in that nature. So, I am just happy we connected today and can’t wait to possibly chat more in the future.

Mary: Me too. I also hope everyone out there stays safe. We need to fight through this together. I know that you have experienced the trauma working in healthcare, and many people out there are experiencing trauma. We just need to stick together, now more than ever. Do what you can, do your part, and we will move forward.

Kristina: What a beautiful message. With that, we will let you go, but don’t forget to check out Mary’s blog for even more info about her painting ‘A Marvelous Time.’ By the way, I noticed your blog post was posted on June 10, which happens to be the same date that my book, Lucky, came out! I found that to be so funny!

Mary: Really? Wow, that is ironic.

Mary and Kristina (literally at the same time): Serendipitous!

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