Picks and Pans Review: Blue Blood

updated 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Craig Unger

This evenhanded biography of Rebekah Harkness is the story of a headstrong heiress who tried to pass herself off as a diamond but proved to be only a rhinestone, a colorful fake. After her second husband, Standard Oil heir William Hale Harkness, died in 1954, leaving her $27 million, Rebekah became obsessed with proving herself a composer as well as ballet dancer. She even hired teachers to help her write music and took credit for their work. She did sponsor ballets by Robert Joffrey, Alvin Ailey and Jerome Robbins, but she fell out of favor in the New York ballet world in 1964 after luring away Joffrey's dancers and appropriating his repertory to establish her own company, the Harkness Ballet. Both the company and its ballet school unraveled, however, as its founder became more addicted to drugs and sycophants. Her three children were emotionally if not physically orphaned. "Rebekah abandoned them," one family friend told Unger. "She would go for days without knowing where they were." Her son, Allen Pierce, was convicted of murder in 1977; daughter Terry Pierce McBride all but abandoned her own handicapped daughter; Edith Harkness committed suicide. A headstrong debutante of St. Louis society, Rebekah Harkness had first married Dickson Pierce, a Yale graduate who became a commercial photographer. He took her to Manhattan, but she divorced him in 1945. After marrying Harkness in 1947, she developed a "whim of iron," as critic Clive Barnes put it; she had mink mufflers made for her castanets and once filled her fish tank with Scotch. By the time she died of cancer in 1982 she had spent most of her inheritance. Unger, a journalist who interviewed more than 300 people for his book, skillfully traces the rise and fall of this would-be empress of ballet. (Morrow, $18.95)

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