Frank Sinatra: The one man in America who; could do whatever he wanted
FRANK SINATRA, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except that now, in this private club in Beverly Hills, he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semi-darkness into a large room beyond the bar, where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the centre of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra's four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.
Sinatra had been working on a film that he now disliked, could not wait to finish; he was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the 20-year-old Mia Farrow; he was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendship with Mafia leaders; he was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled Sinatra - A Man And His Music, which would require that he sing 18 songs with a voice that at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain. Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.
Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel - only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it not only affects his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond, as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.
For Frank Sinatra was now involved with many things involving many people - his own film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile- parts firm, his real-estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of 75 - which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent. He seemed now to be also the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America, the man who can do anything he wants, anything, can do it because he has the money, the energy, and no apparent guilt. In an age when the very young seem to be taking over, protesting and picketing and demanding change, Frank Sinatra survives as a national phenomenon, one of the few pre-war products to withstand the test of time.
But now, standing at this bar in Beverly Hills, Sinatra had a cold, and he continued to drink quietly and he seemed miles away in his private world, not even reacting when suddenly the stereo in the other room switched to a Sinatra song, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning".
It is a lovely ballad that he first recorded 10 years ago, and it now inspired many young couples who had been sitting, tired of twisting, to get up and move slowly around the dance floor, holding one another very close, Sinatra's intonation, precisely clipped, yet full and flowing, gave a deeper meaning to the simple lyrics: "In the wee small hours of the morning, while the whole wide world is fast asleep, you lie awake, and think about the girl...."
It was, like so many of his classics, a song that evoked loneliness and sensuality, and when blended with the dim light and the alcohol and nicotine and late-night needs, it became a kind of airy aphrodisiac. Undoubtedly the words from this song, and others like it, had put millions in the mood; it was music to make love by, and doubtless much love had been made by it all over America at night in cars, while the batteries burned down, in cottages by the lake, on beaches during balmy summer evenings, in secluded parks and exclusive penthouses and furnished rooms; in cabin cruisers and cabs and cabanas - in all places where Sinatra's songs could be heard were these words that warmed women, wooed and won them, snipped the final thread of inhibition and gratified the male egos of ungrateful lovers. Two generations of men had been the beneficiaries of such ballads, for which they were eternally in his debt, for which they may eternally hate him, Nevertheless, here he was, the man himself, in the early hours of the morning in Beverly Hills, out of range.
Now Sinatra said a few words to the blondes. Then he turned from the bar and began to walk towards the pool room. One of Sinatra's other men friends moved in to keep the girls company. Brad Dexter, who had been standing in the corner talking to some other people, now followed Sinatra.
The room cracked with the clack of billiard balls. There were about a dozen spectators in the room, most of them young men who were watching Leo Durocher shoot against two other aspiring hustlers who were not very good. This private drinking club has among its membership many actors, directors, writers, models, nearly all of them a good deal younger than Sinatra or Durocher and much more casual in the way they dress for the evening. Many of the young women, their long hair flowing loosely below their shoulders, wore tight pants and very expensive sweaters; and a few of the young men wore blue or green velour shirts with high collars, and narrow, tight pants and Italian loafers.
It was obvious from the way Sinatra looked at these people in the pool room that they were not his style, but he leaned back against a high stool that was against the wall, holding his drink in his right hand, and said nothing, just watched Durocher slam the billiard balls back and forth. The younger men in the room, accustomed to seeing Sinatra at this club, treated him without deference, although they said nothing offensive. They were a cool young group, very California-cool and casual, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, light brown hair, and square eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60.
Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison; he was a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, The Oscar.
Finally Sinatra could not contain himself. "Hey," he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. "Those Italian boots?"
"No," Ellison said.
"Are they English boots?"
"Look, I dunno, man," Ellison shot back, frowning at Sinatra, then turning away again.
The pool room was suddenly silent. Leo Durocher, who had been poised behind his cue and was bent low, just froze in that position for a second. Nobody moved. Then Sinatra moved away from the stool and walked with that slow, arrogant swagger of his toward Ellison, the hard tap of Sinatra's shoes the only sound in the room. Then, looking down at Ellison with a slightly raised eyebrow and a tricky little smile, Sinatra asked: "You expecting a storm?"
Harlan Ellison moved a step to the side. "Look, is there any reason why you're talking to me?"
"I don't like the way you're dressed," Sinatra said.
"Hate to shake you up," Ellison said, "but I dress to suit myself."
Now there was some rumbling in the room, and somebody said, "C'mon, Harlan, let's get out of here," and Leo Durocher made his pool shot and said, "Yeah, c'mon."
But Ellison stood his ground.
Sinatra said: `What do you do?"
"I'm a plumber," Ellison replied.
"No, no, he's not," another young man quickly yelled from across the table. "He wrote The Oscar."
"Oh, yeah," Sinatra said, "well I've seen it, and it's a piece of crap."
"That's strange," Ellison said, "because they haven't even released it yet."
"Well, I've seen it," Sinatra repeated, "and it's a piece of crap."
Now Brad Dexter, very anxious, very big opposite the small figure of Ellison, said, "C'mon, kid, I don't want you in this room."
"Hey," Sinatra interrupted Dexter, "can't you see I'm talking to this guy?"
Dexter was confused. Then his whole attitude changed, and Dexter's voice went soft and he said to Ellison, almost with a plea, "Why do you persist in tormenting me?"
The whole scene was becoming ridiculous, and it seemed that Sinatra was only half-serious, perhaps just reacting out of sheer boredom or inner despair; at any rate, after a few more exchanges Harlan Ellison left the room. By this time the word had got out to those on the dance floor about the Sinatra-Ellison exchange, and somebody went to look for the manager of the club. But somebody else said that the manager had already heard about it - and had quickly gone out through the door, hopped in his car and driven home. So the assistant manager went into the pool room.
"I don't want anybody in here without coats and ties," Sinatra snapped. The assistant manager nodded, and walked back to his office.
On the following Monday, a cloudy and unseasonably cool California day, more than 100 people gathered inside a white television studio, an enormous room dominated by a white stage, white walls, and with dozens of lights and lamps dangling: it rather resembled a gigantic operating room. In this room, within an hour or so, NBC was scheduled to begin taping an hour-long show that would be televised in colour on the night of 24 November and would highlight the 25-year career of Frank Sinatra as a public entertainer. It would not attempt to probe, as the forthcoming CBS Sinatra documentary allegedly would, that area of Sinatra's life that he regards as private. The NBC show would be mainly an hour of Sinatra singing some of the hits that carried him from Hoboken to Hollywood, a show that would be interrupted only now and then by a few film clips and commercials for Budweiser beer.
Prior to his cold, Sinatra had been very excited about this show; he saw here an opportunity not only to appeal to those nostalgic, but also to communicate his talent to some rock'n'rollers: in a sense, he was battling the Beatles. The press releases stressed this, reading: "If you happen to be tired of kid singers wearing mops of hair thick enough to hide a crate of melons ... it should be refreshing to consider the entertainment value of a video special titled Sinatra - A Man And His Music ..."
But now, in this NBC studio in Los Angeles, there was an atmosphere of anticipation and tension because of the uncertainty of the Sinatra voice. Minutes later, the real Frank Sinatra walked out.
He had been unable to rid himself of the cold, but was going to try to sing anyway because the schedule was tight and thousands of dollars were involved at this moment in the assembling of the orchestra and crews and the rental of the studio. But when Sinatra, on his way to his small rehearsal room to warm up his voice, looked into the studio and saw that the stage and orchestra platform were not close together, as he had specifically requested, his lips tightened and he was obviously very upset. A few moments later, from his rehearsal room, could be heard the pounding of his fist against the top of the piano and the voice of his accompanist, Bill Miller, saying: "Guess I got to change my whole act."
When he strolled into the studio the musicians all picked up their instruments and stiffened in their seats. Sinatra cleared his throat a few times and then, after rehearsing a few ballads with the orchestra, he sang "Don't Worry About Me" to his satisfaction and, being uncertain of how long his voice could last, suddenly became impatient.
"Why don't we tape this mother?" he called out, looking up toward the glass booth where the director, Dwight Hemion, and his staff were sitting. Their heads seemed to be down, focusing on the control board.
"Why don't we tape this mother?" Sinatra repeated.
The production stage manager, who stands near the camera wearing a headset, repeated Sinatra's words exactly into his line to the control room: "Why don't we tape this mother?"
Hemion did not answer. Possibly his switch was off. It was hard to know, because of the obscuring reflections the lights made against the glass booth.
"Why don't we put on a coat and tie," said Sinatra, then wearing a high- necked yellow pullover, "and tape this ..."
Suddenly Hemion's voice came over the sound amplifier, very calmly: "Okay, Frank, would you mind going back over ..."
"Yes, I would mind going back," Sinatra snapped.
He rehearsed a few more songs, once or twice interrupting the orchestra when a certain instrumental sound was not quite what he wanted. It was hard to tell how well his voice was going to hold up, for this was early in the show; up to this point, however, everybody in the room seemed pleased, particularly when he sang an old, sentimental favourite written more than 20 years ago by Jimmy Van Heusen and Phil Silvers, "Nancy", inspired by the first of Sinatra's three children when she was just a few years old.
"If I don't see her each day, I miss her ... gee what a thrill, each time I kiss her ..."
As Sinatra sang these words, though he has sung them hundreds and hundreds of times in the past, it was suddenly obvious to everybody in the studio that something quite special must be going on inside the man, because something quite special was coming out. He was singing now, cold or no cold, with power and warmth, he was letting himself go, the public arrogance was gone, the private side was in this song about the girl who, it is said, understands him better than anybody else.
Sinatra stood on the stage, arms folded, glaring up across the cameras toward Hemion. Sinatra had sung Nancy with probably all he had in his voice on this day. The next few numbers contained raspy notes, and twice his voice completely cracked. But now Hemion was in the control booth out of communication; then he was down in the studio walking over to where Sinatra stood. A few minutes later they both left the studio and were on the way up to the control booth.
The tape was replayed for Sinatra. He watched only about five minutes of it before he started to shake his head. Then he said to Hemion: "Forget it, just forget it. You're wasting your time. What you got there," Sinatra said, nodding to the singing image of himself on the television screen, "is a man with a cold." Then he left the control booth, ordering that the whole day's performance be scrubbed and future taping postponed until he he had recovered.
After spending the week in Palm Springs, his cold much better, Frank Sinatra returned to Los Angeles, in time to see the long-awaited CBS documentary with his family. At about 9pm he drove to the home of his former wife, Nancy, and had dinner with her and their two daughters. Their son, whom they rarely see these days, was out of town. The CBS show, narrated by Walter Cronkite, began at 10pm. A minute before that, the Sinatra family, having finished dinner, turned their chairs around and faced the camera, united for whatever disaster might follow.
And like so much of Hollywood's fear, the apprehension about the CBS show proved to be without foundation. It was a highly flattering hour that did not deeply probe - as rumours suggested it would - into Sinatra's love life, or the Mafia, or other areas of his private province. While the documentary was not authorised, wrote Jack Gould in the next day's New York Times, "it could have been".
The next day Sinatra, following the orchestra, walked into the NBC studio, which did not resemble in the slightest the scene here of eight days before. On this occasion Sinatra was in fine voice; he cracked jokes between numbers; nothing could upset him.
When the show was over, Sinatra watched the rerun on the monitor in the control room. He was very pleased, shaking hands with Dwight Hemion and his assistants. Then the whisky bottles were opened in Sinatra's dressing room. Telegrams and telephone calls continued to be received from all over the country with praise for the CBS show. There was even a call from the CBS producer, Don Hewitt, with whom Sinatra had been so angry a few days before. And Sinatra was still angry, feeling that CBS had betrayed him, though the show itself was not objectionable.
"Shall I drop a line to Hewitt?" his press agent asked.
"Can you send a fist through the mail?" Sinatra asked.
Sinatra was tired of all the talk, the gossip, the theory - tired of reading quotes about himself, of hearing what people were saying about him all over town.
"He has everything, he cannot sleep, he gives nice gifts, he is not happy, but he would not trade, even for happiness, what he is ...
"He is a piece of our past - but only we have aged, he hasn't ... we are dogged by domesticity, he isn't ... we have compunctions, he doesn't ... it is our fault, not his ...
"He controls the menus of every Italian restaurant in Los Angeles; if you want north Italian cooking, fly to Milan ...
"Men follow him, imitate him, fight to be near him ... there is something of the locker room, the barracks about him ... bird ... bird ...
"He believes you must play it big, wide, expansively - the more open you are, the more you take in, your dimensions deepen, you grow, you become more what you are - bigger, richer ...
"He is better than anybody else, or at least they think he is, and he has to live up to it." - Nancy Sinatra Jr.
"He is calm on the outside - inwardly a million things are happening to him." - Dick Bakalyan.
"He has an insatiable desire to live every moment to its fullest because, I guess, he feels that right around the corner is extinction." - Brad Dexter.
"All I ever got out of any of my marriages was the two years Artie Shaw financed on an analyst's couch." - Ava Gardner.
"We weren't mother and son - we were buddies." - Dolly Sinatra.
Sinatra said it had been a tedious three weeks, and now he just wanted to get away, go to Las Vegas, let off some steam. So he hopped in his jet and soared over the California hills across the Nevada flats, then over miles and miles of desert to The Sands and the Clay-Patterson fight.
On the eve of the fight he stayed up all night and slept through most of the afternoon, though his recorded voice could be heard singing in the lobby of The Sands, in the gambling casino, even in the toilets.
The fight, called a holy war between Muslims and Christians, was preceded by the introduction of three balding ex-champions, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Sonny Liston - and then there was "The Star Spangled Banner", sung by another man from out of the past, Eddie Fisher.
Floyd Patterson chased Clay around the ring in the first round, but was unable to reach him, and from then on he was Clay's toy, the bout ending in a technical knockout in the 12th round. Half-an-hour later, nearly everybody had forgotten about the fight and was back at the gambling tables, or lining up to buy tickets for the Dean Martin-Sinatra-Bishop nightclub routine on the stage of The Sands. This routine, which includes Sammy Davis Jr when he is in town, consists of a few songs and much cutting up, all of it very informal, very special, and rather ethnic - Martin, a drink in hand, asking Bishop: "did you ever see a Jew jitsu?"; and Bishop playing a Jewish waiter, warning the two Italians to watch out "because I got my own group - the Matzia".
Then, after the last show at The Sands, the Sinatra crowd, which now numbered about 20 - and included Jilly, who had flown in from New York; Jimmy Cannon, Sinatra's favourite sports columnist; Harold Gibbons, a Teamster official expected to take over if Hoffa went to jail - all got into a line of cars and headed for another club. It was 3am. The night was young.
They stopped at The Sahara, taking a long table near the back, and listened to a bald-headed little comedian named Don Rickles.
By 4am, Frank Sinatra led the group out of The Sahara, some of them carrying their glasses of whisky with them, sipping it along the sidewalk and in the cars; then, returning to The Sands, they walked into the casino. It was still packed with people; the roulette wheels were spinning, and the crap-shooters screaming in the far corner.
Sinatra, holding a shot glass of bourbon in his left hand, walked through the crowd. He, unlike some of his friends, was perfectly pressed, his tuxedo tie precisely pointed, his shoes unsmudged. He never seems to lose his dignity, never lets his guard completely down no matter how much he has drunk, nor how long he has been up. He never sways when he walks, like Dean Martin, nor does he ever dance in the aisles or jump up on tables, like Sammy Davis.
A part of Sinatra, no matter where he is, is never there. There is always a part of him, though sometimes a small part, that remains Il Padrone. Even now, resting his shot glass on the blackjack table, facing the dealer, Sinatra stood a bit back from the table, not leaning against it. He reached under his tuxedo jacket into his trouser pocket and came up with a thick but clean wad of bills Gently he peeled off a $100 bill and placed it on the green baize table. The dealer dealt him two cards. Sinatra called for a third card, overbid, lost the hundred.
Without a change of expression, Sinatra put down a second $100 bill. He lost that, then he put down a third, and lost that. Then he placed two $100 bills on the table and lost those. Finally, putting his sixth $100 bill on the table, and losing it, Sinatra moved away from the table, nodding to the man, and announcing: "Good dealer."
The crowd that had gathered around him now opened up to let him through. But a woman stepped in front of him, handing him a piece of paper to autograph. He signed it and then he said: "Thank you."
In the rear of The Sands' large dining room was a long table reserved for Sinatra. The table was about the same size as the one reserved for Sinatra whenever he is at Jilly's in New York; and the people seated around this table in Las Vegas were many of the same people who are often seen with Sinatra at Jilly's or at a restaurant in California, or in Italy, or in New Jersey, or wherever Sinatra happens to be.
When Sinatra sits to dine, his trusted friends are close; and no matter where he is, no matter how elegant the place may be, there is something of the neighbourhood showing, because Sinatra, no matter how far he has come, is still something of the boy from the neighbourhood - only now he can take his neighbourhood with him.
In some ways, this quasi-family affair at a reserved table in a public place is the closest thing Sinatra now has to home life. Perhaps, having had a home and left it, this approximation is as close as he cares to come; although his does not seem precisely so, because he speaks with such warmth about his family, keeps in close touch with his first wife, and insists that she make no decision without first consulting him.
This was his second night in Las Vegas, and Frank Sinatra sat with friends in The Sands' dining room until nearly 8am. He slept through much of the day, then flew back to Los Angeles, and on the following morning he was driving his little golf cart through the Paramount Pictures movie lot. He was scheduled to complete two final scenes with the sultry blonde actress Virna Lisi, in the film Assault on a Queen. There were only two scenes left: a short one, to be filmed in the pool, and a longer and passionate one featuring Sinatra and Virna Lisi, to be shot on a simulated beach.
Frank Sinatra was on the beach, supposedly gazing up at the stars, and Virna Lisi was to approach him, toss one of her shoes near him to announce her presence, then sit near him and prepare for a passionate session. Just before beginning, Miss Lisi made a practice toss of her shoe toward the prone figure of Sinatra sprawled on the beach. As she tossed her shoe, Sinatra called out, "Hit me in my bird and I'm going home."
Virna Lisi, who understands little English and certainly none of Sinatra's special vocabulary, looked confused, but everybody behind the camera laughed. She threw the shoe toward him. It twirled in the air and landed on his stomach. "Well, that's about three inches too high," he announced.
Then Jack Donahue had them rehearse their lines, and Sinatra, still very charged from the Las Vegas trip, and anxious to get the cameras rolling, said, "Let's try one." Donahue, not certain that Sinatra and Lisi knew their lines well enough, never the less said okay, and an assistant with a clapboard called, "419, Take 1," and Virna Lisi approached with the shoe and tossed it at Frank lying on the beach. It fell short of his thigh, and Sinatra's right eye raised almost imperceptibly, but the crew got the message, and smiled.
"What do the stars tell you tonight?" Miss Lisi said, delivering her first line, and sitting next to Sinatra on the beach. "The stars tell me tonight I'm an idiot," Sinatra said, "a gold-plated idiot to get mixed up in this thing ..."
"Cut," Donahue said. There were some microphone shadows on the sand, and Virna Lisi was not sitting in the proper place near Sinatra.
"419, Take 2," the clapboard man called.
Miss Lisi again approached, threw the shoe at him, this time falling short - Sinatra exhaling only slightly - and she said: "What do the stars tell you tonight?"
"The stars tell me I'm an idiot, a gold-plated idiot to get mixed up in this thing ..." Then, according to the script, Sinatra was to continue, "... do you know what we're getting into? The minute we step on the deck of the Queen Mary, we've just tattooed ourselves." But Sinatra, who often improvises on lines, recited them: "... do you know what we're getting into? The minute we step on the deck of that mother's-ass ship." "No, no," Donahue interrupted, shaking his head, "I don't think that's right."
The cameras stopped, some people laughed, and Sinatra looked up from his position in the sand as if he had been unfairly interrupted. "I don't see why that can't work ..." he began. But Richard Conte, standing behind the camera, yelled: "It won't play in London." Donahue pushed his hand through his thinning grey hair and said, but not really in anger, "You know, that scene was pretty good until somebody blew the line."
While Sinatra does not mind hamming it up a bit on a movie set, he is extremely serious about his recording sessions; as he explained to a British writer, Robin Douglas-Home: "Once you're on that record singing, it's you and you alone. If it's bad and gets you criticised, it's you who's to blame - no one else. If it's good, it's also you. With a film it's never like that; there are producers and scriptwriters, and hundreds of men in offices, and the thing is taken right out of your hands. With a record, you're it."
It no longer matters what song he is singing, or who wrote the words- they are all his words, his sentiments, they are chapters from the lyrical novel of his life.
When Frank Sinatra drives to the studio, he seems to dance out of the car across the sidewalk into the front door; then, snapping his fingers, he is standing in front of the orchestra in an intimate, airtight room, and soon he is dominating every man, every instrument, every sound wave. Some of the musicians have accompanied him for 25 years, have grown old hearing him sing "You Make Me Feel So Young".
When his voice is on, as it was tonight, Sinatra is in ecstasy, the room becomes electric, there is an excitement that spreads through the orchestra and is felt in the control booth; there are also numbers of pretty women standing in the booth behind the engineers, women who smile at Sinatra and softly move their bodies to the mellow mood of his music:
"Will this be moon love,
Nothing but moon love,
Will you be gone when the dawn,
Comes stealing through ..."
After he is finished, the record is played back on tape, and Nancy Sinatra, who has just walked in, joins her father near the front of the orchestra to hear the playback. They listen silently, all eyes on them, the king, the princess; and when the music ends there is applause from the control booth, Nancy smiles, and her father snaps his fingers and says, kicking a foot: "Ooba-deeba-boobe-do!"
The musicians put their instruments into their cases, grab their coats, and begin to file out, saying good night to Sinatra. He knows them all by name, knows much about them personally, from their bachelor days, through their ups and downs, as they know him.
The rest of the month was bright and balmy. The record session had gone magnificently, the film was finished, the television shows were out of the way, and now Sinatra was driving out to his office to begin co-ordinating his latest projects. He had an engagement at The Sands, a new spy film called The Naked Runner, to be shot in England, and a couple more albums to do. And within a week he would be 50.
"Life is a beautiful thing,
As long as I hold the string,
I'd be a silly so-and-so,
If I should ever let go."
Frank Sinatra stopped his car. The light was red. Pedestrians passed quickly across his windshield but, as usual, one did not. It was a girl in her twenties. She remained at the kerb staring at him. Through the corner of his left eye he could see her, and he knew, because it happens almost every day, that she was thinking, It looks like him, but is it? Just before the light turned green, Sinatra turned toward her, looked directly into her eyes, waiting for the reaction he knew would come. It came, and he smiled. She smiled. And he was gone.
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