|Born||Rebekah Semple West
April 17, 1915
St. Louis, Missouri, USA
|Died||17 June 1982
Manhattan, New York, USA
|Known for||Harkness Ballet|
|Spouse(s)||Charles Dickson Pierce
William Hale Harkness
Benjamin H. Kean
Anne Terry Pierce
Rebekah Cook West
Rebekah West Harkness (April 17, 1915–June 17, 1982) also known as Betty Harkness, was an American composer, sculptor, dance patron, and philanthropist who founded the Harkness Ballet. Her marriage to William Hale "Bill" Harkness, an attorney and heir to the Standard Oil fortune of William L. Harkness, made her one of the wealthiest women in America.
Born Rebekah Semple West in St. Louis, Missouri, she was the second daughter of three children of a socially prominent stockbroker, Allen Tarwater, and Rebekah Cook (Semple) West. Raised primarily by a series of nannies, Harkness took up dancing and ice skating to lose weight and was highly disciplined in both endeavors. She attended the Rossman School and John Burroughs School in St. Louis, then Fermata, a finishing school in Aiken, South Carolina. Harkness was friends with a young Potter Stewart, who she affectionately called "Potsie"; their relationship was written about by her biographer Craig Unger.
After graduating in 1932, she and a group of female friends formed the Bitch Pack, a kind of sub-culture of local debutantes who enjoyed subverting society events—lacing punchbowls with mineral oil or performing stripteases on banquet tables.
Later in life, she studied in Fontainebleau, France, with Nadia Boulanger, the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze in Geneva, and Mannes College of Music, New York. She also studied orchestration with Lee Hoiby and received a DFA degree from the Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, New Hampshire, in 1968.
Harkness married Charles Dickson Pierce, on June 10, 1939 (divorced 1946); married Harkness, on October 1, 1947 (died, August 1954); married Benjamin H. Kean (a physician), in 1961 (divorced 1965); married Niels Lauersen (a physician), in 1974 (divorced 1977). She had three children: (first marriage) Allen Pierce (b. 1940); Anne Terry Pierce (b. 1944); (second marriage) Edith Harkness. Edith Harkness, her only child with Bill Harkness, was in and out of mental institutions and eventually committed suicide. Her other daughter, Terry Pierce, had a severely brain-damaged baby who died at age 10. Allen Pierce, Harkness' only son, shot and killed a man in a brawl and was charged with second-degree murder.
In the 1960s, Harkness became well known as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. Through the Rebekah Harkness Foundation, Harkness sponsored Jerome Robbins and the Robert Joffrey Ballet. When the Joffrey Ballet refused to rename their company in Harkness' honor, she withdrew funding and hired most of the Joffery dancers to her new company, the Harkness Ballet. In addition to founding the Harkness Ballet, Harkness launched a ballet school and home for the company called Harkness House, as well as a refurbished 1,250-seat theater, which presented the Harkness Ballet and other dance companies to New York audiences. Through the William Hale Harkness Foundation, she sponsored construction of a medical research building at the New York Hospital and supported a number of medical research projects.
In Blue Blood (1988), author Craig Unger writes that at the time of her death, her dance empire had been destroyed, she had been humiliated by the press, and most of her fortune had been lost through her capricious behavior.
- Craig Unger, Blue Blood, St Martins, November, 1989, ISBN 0312917775.