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The real Howard Hughes, before he went off the rails and was still Hollywood’s secret heartbreaker (1942)

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Howard Hughes, before he went off the rails and was still Hollywood's secret heartbreaker (1942)
Hollywood’s secret heartbreaker: Howard Hughes

The names of his romances are startling. The details were kept secret — until now

by Adele Whitely Fletcher

A Hollywood wolf stalks the fair and easy prey of the film colony just so long. Then a girl with blue velvet eyes, a million dollars, or black silk hair comes along, and there’s a wedding with photographers or an elopement to Mexico or Arizona, with everybody saying, “I never thought he’d marry her!” Or vice versa.

One wolf alone defies this rule. Year in, year out — for the past ten years, ever since the love of his life went wrong — this wolf has gone his predatory way. Always the girls who fall in love with him insist upon believing his love for them is different. Always they surround his attentions with the secrecy he demands for all his activities, romantic and otherwise. He has everything, this lone wolf.

He’s thirty-six years old and he’s six feet, three inches tall, with broad shoulders and lean hips.

He’s rich as Croesus, with achievements that are many and brilliant.

He has a soft voice, half Southern, half Western, shy eyes and an infectious grin.

He jams a crumpled old hat on his head and looks dashing.

He has an inferiority complex, probably born of his deafness, which adds to his charm instead of subtracting from it. For it compels him to campaign for hearts instead of feeling a girl is doing all right for herself when he’s around.

He’s Howard Robard Hughes.

There should be a law against him.

The real Howard Hughes - young

Rita Hayworth & Howard Hughes

Current rumors in the film colony say that Rita Hayworth has first claim on the violent and volatile Hughes affections.

Late spring found Rita and Howard at Palm Springs, a glorious place to be when love is young. Your horse takes you along mountain trails beside which the desert flowers grow and even while the sun is warm upon you the breeze is spiced with the snow that lies deep on the summits.

You swim in private pools that lie like platters of turquoise and jade in sweet, tropical gardens. You sit in the dim Lun bar while the guitar boys strum your special song. You drive through the blackest, longest, quietest nights in all the world.

But these delights leave their glow upon you so, when you walk down the main street of this little desert town, you must be prepared as Howard and Rita were not, apparently — for those you meet to read your secret. Rita denies the romance. She says, in effect.

“No, no, a thousand times no! I’ve trouble enough right now without taking on anything else. I’m marking time waiting for my final divorce decree.” But her denials aren’t so convincing as they would be if denials and mystery weren’t always part of the build-up of a Hughes romance.

Faith Dorn and Howard Hughes - Nov 21 1941Before the Rita rumors, there was Faith Dorn. Maybe there is still Faith Dorn. No one ever can be sure.

During the past year, photographs of a girl with young hair and soft curves have appeared in the papers. Captions have read “Faith Dorn, movie actress, and her mother are at Tucson, Arizona, guests of Howard Hughes, millionaire movie producer and air enthusiast. Hollywood is speculating whether Faith is scheduled to be Mrs. Hughes.”

If Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn and a dozen other girls said, “Oh yeah!” as they read these items they were only properly cynical. However, we’ll bet a Dache bonnet there was a soft shine in their eyes. Women never forget the man who — for a year or a month or a day — made them feel like Juliet, Melisande, or Isolde.

“What is Howard’s charm — please?” we asked a star who once loved him and who likes to talk about him still.

She said, “When a man who’s quiet and reserved — even a little taciturn at times — goes overboard — well, a girl thinks, ‘I caused this transformation!’ She’s twice in love then, of course. She’s in love with the man and with her triumph.”

“When, usually, does Howard start losing interest?” we asked.

“Whenever a girl begins to be possessive,” she answered. “At such times he’s quicksilver. He’s gone even while the girl is sure she holds him.”

Before Rita Hayworth, there was Faith Dorn, and before Faith Dorn, there was Hedy Lamarr.

Hedy Lamarr & Howard Hughes

For a month and more, Howard and Hedy had nightly dates. He showered her with expensive gifts. He sent her crates of flowers.

Everybody hopes — and believes — it was Hedy who called quits. Not for any man would she jeopardize her chances of adopting Jamsie, the little blue-eyed boy she loves so well.

And it was when gossip began that this romance ended. Hedy was playing a return engagement on the Hughes merry-go-round. He sought her first back in 1938, after her triumph in “Algiers.”

However, then too, she managed, where most girls fail, to stand clear of heartbreak.

Austrian women, like Hedy, are adept at the game of love. Besides, once married to Fritz Mandl, the fabulously wealthy munitions tycoon, Hedy harbors no illusions about millionaires. In Hollywood, it has been Reginald Gardiner, Gene Markey and George Montgomery who, in turn, have charmed her.

Ginger Rogers & Howard Hughes

Ginger Rogers, whom Hedy might have supplanted in the Hughes kaleidoscope, didn’t stand clear of heartbreak from all appearances. In spite of two marriages, Ginger remains emotionally young. She’s also Irish; which means she’ll always go out all the way for any man who becomes important to her and believe every wonderful whisper.

Howard’s wish for secrecy was Ginger’s law. She wouldn’t talk about him to anyone. She was happy to go dancing at little out-of-the-way places in the Valley. She and Howard were seen at a Hollywood spot just once, the Beverly Wilshire. She delighted in making it possible for him to visit her house, a hilltop fortress, without being seen.

“Ginger’s most frequent escort in recent months has been Howard Hughes,” a columnist finally reported. You can keep things quiet just so long. “It seems likely he will become her third husband.”

Howard Hughes and Ginger Rogers 1937
Ginger Rogers & Howard Hughes in 1937

Ginger then sued Lew Ayres, from whom she had been separated for five years, for divorce and appeared at the studio wearing Howard’s emerald. Even in Hollywood, where star sapphires come as big as robins’ eggs and diamond necklaces are as pyrotechnic as the Northern Lights, it didn’t seem likely Howard, for all his millions, would invest in a ring like that if he were only fooling.

“There’ll be an announcement around Christmas,” those close to Ginger confided optimistically. But no announcement was forthcoming. Instead, there were rumors it was all over.

No one who saw Ginger given the Motion Picture Academy Award doubted those rumors were right. While she stood clasping her Oscar to her tears rained down her face. It was in vain she tried to speak. A knowing woman said, “It isn’t over Oscar she weeps, poor child! But maybe Oscar will help her forget the other fellow.”

Which brings us to a luncheon table at Lucey’s. Lucey’s is a restaurant with flagged stone floors, high-breasted fireplaces, lounge booths, excellent spaghetti and potent cocktails. At Lucey’s, if you listen, you’ll hear all about the horses that run at Santa Anita (when their stalls aren’t occupied by alien Japanese) and all about the stars who work at the Paramount and RKO studios across the way.

There were three of us at table, a star and a publicity girl, both of whom must be nameless, and this writer. On the lapel of the star’s suit — which fit her as if she had been poured into it — was a handsome sapphire clip. Admiring this clip, which was new, the publicity girl said, “It must be pleasant being a movie star!”

“It is — sometimes, ” the star agreed. “That’s the trouble. It’s so damn pleasant sometimes that none of us is willing to give up, in spite of all the other times. Actually, you know, we have everything and nothing.

“Above everything else a girl needs a man — to love her and protect her and boss her around now and then. We miss that. Those of us who are single outnumber the available men in the film colony — even counting those who wear toupees — about twelve to one. Our incomes frighten away nice guys who don’t have much money.

“Bored sitting alone, waiting for the phone to ring, we finally ask one of the boys who’re always available if they don’t have to pick up a check to take us out. Or we give in and go dancing with a paunchy executive who has more hair on his hands than on his head; and before the first rhumba is over we wish we were home with that good book everybody’s always talking about.

“If,” she concluded, “a young man who’s attractive and has money appears, it’s a rat race!”

She was being amusing, but she was in bitter earnest, too.

The publicity girl said, suddenly, “I hear Ginger Rogers is flirting with a breakdown, that she comes in late and leaves early. They’re glad enough to fit her scenes in when she’s around of course. They know if she didn’t have what it takes she wouldn’t be working at all!”

There was a little silence. “It was Ginger I was thinking about especially, as you guessed,” said the star.

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Girls don’t have sense where Howard is concerned

It isn’t only in Hollywood when there aren’t enough men to go round that Howard Hughes is dynamite. Gloria Baker half-sister of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, now married to Bob Topping and thus Sonja Henie’s sister-in-law, lost her dark poise once upon a time because of him.

So did that sophisticate of sophisticates, Marian (Timmie) Lansing, who later became Mrs. Peter Arno, and now is married to a former aide of the Duke of Windsor. And back in 1935, when she was only fifteen years old, Ruth Moffett, daughter of the FHA administrator, learned about love from the rangy Lothario from the plains of Texas.

If girls had sense, they’d run from Howard as from a typhoon. But girls don’t have sense where men are concerned, especially men like Howard Hughes.

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He inherited seventy-five million dollars from his father when he was nineteen years old. But he’s never been the proverbial millionaire’s son, satisfied to live in lavish indolence. “The oil drill business is my father’s business,” he said. “I must do things on my own.”

At twenty-one, watching a dull movie in Dallas, Texas, he declared: “I could make a better picture than that!”

So have we all! But a month later, Howard Hughes was in Hollywood organizing his film company.

He knew nothing about making pictures and he said so. He had a habit of shrugging his shoulders and saying, ‘What do you think I should do here?” Hollywood asked, “Have you met the chump from Texas?” No one guessed Howard was the boy Jimmy Stewart since has played on the screen, the boy who’s simple and naive on the surface I but shrewd as a trap underneath.

His first production, “Two Arabian Knights,” took the Motion Picture Academy Award for 1927.

His second picture, “Hell’s Angels” — on which he gambled two million dollars — made screen history, and turned Jean Harlow, a nobody whom he was ridiculed for starring and placing under a long-term contract, into a screen sensation.

Two Arabian Knights - Howard Hughes movie poster

Then he dared make gangster pictures. He brought Paul Muni to the screen. Pat O’Brien too. It remains to be seen, after a long holiday from picture-making, if he’ll come through brilliantly again with “The Outlaw” and hatch another star in Jane Russell.

Work and romance are two things Howard likes to keep separate. He isn’t likely to have a personal interest in a girl who works in his pictures.

Says Jane Russell, who admires him tremendously but impersonally, “I expected a man with Mr. Hughes’s money and fame to be ritzy. But he isn’t. He pays no attention to the way he looks. He used to wear old white flannels to the studios and a shiny blue suit with a hole in it.

“He has more patience and energy than anyone I’ve ever known. On a shot where I kiss right into the camera he had a definite idea about what he wanted. We worked on that shot for three days. And lots of times when we all left the studio exhausted, he would go over to his Glendale factory to work on a plane.”

Airplanes & Olivia de Havilland

Motion pictures aren’t Howard’s major interest. Airplanes are. In ships made by the Hughes Aircraft Company, the construction of which he supervises to the least detail, he’s broken speed records, pioneered through the stratosphere, won the Harmon Medal for his contributions to scientific flying and encircled the earth.

“He has considerable genius,” according to Olivia de Havilland, who ought to know, “and infinite charm.”

Olivia and Howard met in November, 1938, a few days before Thanksgiving. She was in northern California on location. As a plane flies she was about an hour from her mother and home in Saratoga. By train, it was a long way round.

“Howard Hughes is flying up this afternoon,” one of the company said. “Why not ask him to fly you home?” High color rose in Olivia’s cheeks. “I couldn’t! I don’t know him! Besides, Howard Hughes has many more important things to do than to fly me home!” Howard decided otherwise.

In the same hour he and Olivia met, they were flying over California’s brown hills and fertile valleys. She planned how she would write her cousin, Jeffry de Havilland of the de Havilland motor family in England, all about it.

He’d been none too impressed with her stardom, saying only it must be a great lark. But when he heard Howard Hughes had flown her home for Thanksgiving, it would be different.

Howard marked Olivia’s eyes moist and shining as morning flowers with the dew on them. He marked her face, delicately turned. He marked her mouth, like ripe fruit.

A few months earlier, encircling the earth (while Katharine Hepburn sat beside her radio, day and night, waiting word of him) he had looked out calmly over dark continents and deep oceans. But as he asked Olivia, “When can we see each other again?” his eyes weren’t calm at all, they were desperate.

When and while Howard Hughes cares, he cares tremendously.

Howard Hughes and Hollywood actresses 1942

The Hughes-de Havilland romance had no publicity.

When Howard and Olivia went out together it didn’t take them long to get out of town. His car is geared for a man accustomed to the speed of flight. He would think he were riding on the back of a snail if he kept the pace of other cars on the road. Like his father before him, who had a “fine fund” on deposit at the Houston police station, Howard has speed in his blood.

Even if the photographers had discovered Howard and Olivia together, it isn’t likely they would have snapped them.

Howard has the lens boys on his side. He flies them wherever they want to go. Following a heavy romance, during which they’ve let him alone, he wines and dines them at the Cocoanut Grove. And, taking them into his confidence, he wins them over completely. “I appreciate you fellows understanding I’m not a playboy, that I’d lose standing in the oil tool business if I were photographed with girls at nightclubs,” he tells them.

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The winter Olivia and Howard were seeing each other she was working in “Gone With The Wind.” One day, lunching with her in her bungalow dressing room, we suggested a magazine story telling how she and Howard had met and what they meant to each other.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’d be proud to talk about Howard. You know that! But I can’t. I can’t risk having him think I’m using him for publicity. That would hurt him!”

Olivia’s pale brown hair was caught in a snood. She wore the somber grays and garnets of “Melanie.” But her eyes were starry bright and her voice came full and quick. Looking at her, listening to her, you knew her life was warm with love. Her days were filled with satisfying work while she created one of the loveliest portraits ever given to the screen. And, her work done, she went home to a house filled with Howard’s flowers.

Then, quicksilver again, Howard Hughes was gone. Business took him to New York where he saw Katharine Hepburn once more. From there he flew south. In Florida, he was seen with half a dozen beautiful girls in half a dozen famous cafes.

Howard Hughes with a plane

Howard Hughes had loyal friends

It’s strange Howard’s never been sued for breach of promise and stranger still that, almost always, he salvages a worthwhile friendship from the romantic ruins. Other Hollywood wolves would like to know how he does this. They shake their heads over him, individually and collectively. Today Howard and Olivia are the most loyal friends.

When she was ill at Santa Fe, it was to Howard she telephoned. “I have appendicitis,” she told him. “If they have to operate — and I think they will — I’d prefer to be home.”

She laughed, that warm, young laugh. “Some of the nurses here, Indians, are terrific movie fans. I wouldn’t trust them not to snip a little extra piece for a souvenir. Could you help me get a plane somehow, Howard? I’ve tried to charter one, but they’re all grounded.”

“By the time you get to the field, a plane will be waiting,” he promised. Then, “Be sure they bundle you up good and warm,” he said.

The plane he had released was on the runway warming up when she reached the field. That night she found her room in a Los Angeles hospital filled with flowers. He telephoned a few minutes after she got in, to make certain she had everything she wanted. The next morning, he was at her bedside.

Recently, at a party, Howard was criticized for being a “penny pincher.” Olivia flew to his defense. “I’ve known him to be more than generous — often!” she told his critics. “I remember one evening when a shabby young man approached the car to ask for help. The traffic light turned. We had to go on. But Howard drove around the block, parked — with some difficulty — found that fellow again, gave him five dollars and promised him work at the factory.

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“And you must admit,” she concluded, triumph bright in her eyes, “that Howard deserves more credit for doing a thing like this than most of us would. A man with his money and his position is approached constantly and disillusioned many times, I’m sure.”

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Howard Hughes, like most people, is uneven about money. Because he’s as rich as he is, his economies seem more drastic and his extravagances are more lavish. The gifts he makes girls often are worth a small fortune.

He has paid thousands of dollars for an experiment on an engine or certain cloud effects for a picture. His Sikorsky amphibian plane, which seats twelve, set him back seventy-five thousand dollars. Without grousing, he dropped millions in the failure of a film laboratory and in a theater deal.

But he’s perpetually careful about little expenditures, the bets he makes on the golf course, the tips he gives waiters and taxi drivers. He’s been described as a man who would argue over the oil in the tanks of a hundred-thousand-dollar yacht. He says himself he cannot bear to “fritter” money away.

Howard Hughes - Faith Dorn Billie Dove

Billie Dove & Howard Hughes

Back in 1929, Howard met and fell in love with Billie Dove.

He was twenty-five years old then and his income was reputed to be two million dollars a year. He had just divorced Ella Rice Hughes, the Houston debutante he had married at nineteen, settling one million dollars on her.

Billie was one of the most beautiful women in the world. For the benefit of those too young to remember her on the screen — no one who saw her ever would forget her — she had soft hazel eyes, a skin with the rich pallor of camellias, crisp brown hair with a wide swath of gray and a figure warm and round.

For years, Billie wore Howard’s big blazing diamond — on the right finger but the wrong hand, incidentally. For years she and Howard saw nothing and cared for nothing beyond each other’s eyes. Everyone thought they would marry the same day Howard’s lawyer secured her divorce.

Everyone was wrong. The Whispering Chorus whispered that Howard’s business associates had objected to his marrying a movie star. If this be true, he bought their approval at a great price.

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A woman who’s been part of Hollywood for years said, just the other day, “Howard’s still looking for the love he and Billie knew. Billie would leave a scar on any man who loved her. Not only because of her beauty but because of her lovely feminine sweetness.” No other girl, certainly, ever held Howard so long or completely.

There have been more girls than anyone could count since 1932 when he and Billie said goodbye. In Hollywood alone — and he spends only part of his time there — besides Rita, Faith, Hedy, Ginger, Olivia and Katharine Hepburn there have been Lillian Bond, Dorothy Jordan, Marian Marsh, Ida Lupine, Fay Wray, June Collyer, Frances Drake, Wendy Barrie, Rochelle Hudson and dozens more who never reached the ten-date stage.

Katharine Hepburn & Howard Hughes

Olivia believes Howard loved Katharine Hepburn well. “Katharine,” Olivia says, “is the only girl of whom Howard talks; and he talks of her with warm respect.”

According to Theodore Dreiser, the love of a man and a woman is a chemical attraction. Often, certainly, the conflagration is fierce and instantaneous when a man and a woman meet. It was that way with Katharine and Howard. Instantly they touched the springs of each other’s hearts and minds.

Howard’s campaign was fervent. If he had to fly to California for a few days he called Katharine, in New York or Connecticut, on the phone and talked for hours. He sent her yellow roses, three and four and five dozen at a time, every day. There never was a card but always when Katharine opened the box her fine lean face would glow.

Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn

She never pretended to herself or anyone else that she and Howard were “just friends.” Once, when she was asked what she would do if Howard ran around with other girls after they were married, she said calmly, “I’d kill him!”

When she played “Jane Eyre” in Chicago, Howard was with her. Her company believed the thirty-five thousand dollar string of pearls with an emerald clasp carved with K that he gave her was a wedding present. An announcement was expected momentarily. The press waited at their hotel, at the theater and at the license bureau. Her mother and sister arrived from Connecticut.

Katharine issued a statement. It read: “Miss Hepburn will not marry Mr. Hughes in Chicago today.”

Likely she and Howard had one of their wild quarrels. It may have begun over such a simple thing as an inadequate tip that he left on the table. Or perhaps he took advantage of this romantic moment to win the promise he always sought — that she wouldn’t fly anymore.

Her flying made him angry. He flies carefully, scientifically. When he steps out of a plane after taking a new record he has notes on such things as engine head temperatures at various altitudes and speeds. Katharine, on the other hand, takes off, hair flying, on an impulse. According to Howard’s standards, she’s reckless. And in this case his standards are probably right.

Whatever happened, their love grew no less. “Jane Eyre” closed and Katharine’s voice troubled her, as it often does when she gets overtired. Howard insisted upon a holiday. They ‘ cruised the Caribbean on George Baker’s beautiful yacht “The Viking.”

Months earlier they had inspected this yacht at New London. It may be they had thought this southern holiday would be a honeymoon.

A sea plane went with them. They flew through the soft air and the soft light of the tropics. They flew over the deep blue sea and the dark green islands. They flew into the morning and into the evening. And every sight and thought were shared and so became more beautiful, more wonderful.

That was the summer Howard Hughes talked for publication about marriage, something he had never done before — not even in the Billie Dove era.

“I’m not a confirmed bachelor,” he said, “and I expect to be married one of these days. But I can’t stand a gaga type of girl. A woman has to have something in her mind to be attractive.” No one doubted it was Katharine, graduated from Bryn Mawr, a Phi Beta Kappa, and an exciting independent thinker, he had in mind.

That was the summer “Stage Door” gave Katharine a high place on the screen. That was the summer Howard dipped the wings of his silver monoplane over the Hepburn estate on the Connecticut shore in a last farewell, as he took off on his globe-encircling flight.

It was a few days later that Katharine rushed from Connecticut to her New York house to wait for him. There he found her, as soon as he could get away from the speeches and the ticker tape and confetti. And in the green shine of her eyes, he again tasted his triumph.

Katharine and Howard became adept at dodging crowds and reporters and cameramen. They used to peer out of a car door cautiously and, if they were discovered, pull in their heads, slam the door and beseech the driver to make time — in any direction. Following Howard Hughes’ flight, however, the press and the crowds were too much for them.

One night, the kitchen staff of a famous New York restaurant watched a waiter lay a table for two in the kitchen, set out the finest linen, china, crystal and silver. Their mouths gaped. Then, through the rear door, came Katharine and Howard, breathless from their mad dash through the alley.

“No more touring the city for a restaurant where we won’t be mobbed — then home, in despair, for milk and scrambled eggs!” That was the essence of Katharine’s edict. And the fantastic dinner in the restaurant kitchen — for which the chef outdid himself — was the result.

Beyond the kitchen wall that night the band played. Men and women who knew Katharine and Howard well swayed to the music and dined at the tables, all unsuspecting. A couple of reporters and a cameraman seated at the bar stopped the host, hurrying kitchenwards with a special bottle of champagne. “Think Howard and his Katie will be in?” one of them asked. The host shook his head.

Young Howard Hughes Hollywood’s secret heartbreaker (1942)

“I don’t think you’ll see them tonight,” he said. “I have an idea they’re in hiding.”

The end of this romance came soon.

But a large, silver-framed photograph of a bewhiskered Howard, taken directly he landed, which has long occupied a place of honor in Katharine’s city living room, would indicate this particular time holds no unhappy aura for her, that it was good while it lasted, even unto the end. No one really knows when things between Howard and Katharine changed, probably not even Howard and Katharine.

Such things are so gradual as to be imperceptible. We know, however, that the song was over for Howard a few months later, because it was that November he flew Olivia home. For Katharine, the melody seems to have lingered on.

That December, admiring a handsome new overcoat Joseph Cotten, who played with her in “The Philadelphia Story,” was wearing, Katharine asked:

“Who’s your fine tailor, Joe? I want to order a coat like that for Howard’s Christmas!”

The Hollywood wolves come and go. At this writing, the pack is smaller than usual, numbering only a few agents and studio executives whose names mean little outside the film colony and, also, Reginald Gardiner, Errol Flynn, John Conti, Bruce Cabot, Vic Mature and, of course, Howard Robard Hughes, perennially Hollywood’s secret heartbreaker.

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One Response

  1. My grandma dorothy told me she was married to one the richest man only spoiled child and she were for dougless during the depression and and she say he was abusive but now i just she had to be lamour or hedy but i hace a picyure you can decide and they must sepeared but she was apossible sister to douglass her father was robert Duncan and mother maude Hunt and she was a wealthy back ground grew up 8 if them in when they cane horse cover wagon robera look like katherine hepburn and ruth luke rita hayward and dorothy she was beautiful and hedy well she was i think adooted by my grandmas sister myrtle .i can go on for days i like i claim my inheirtene .do i need a lawyer.

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