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Literature / Valley of the Dolls

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"When you're climbing Mount Everest, nothing is easy. You just take one step at a time, never look back and always keep your eyes glued to the top."

Valley of the Dolls is a 1966 novel by Jacqueline Susann.

It follows the lives of three women (Anne Welles, Neely O'Hara, and Jennifer North) from the late 1940's to the mid-1960's. They start out as roommates in New York, and each of them achieves fame and fortune in the cutthroat world of show business, with plenty of ups and downs along the way, particularly where their love lives are concerned. While one might think "Dolls" refers to these leading ladies, it is a slang term for pills — particularly sleeping pills and weight loss pills — and almost everyone in the book pops them like candy...note 

The novel was wildly popular upon publication (thanks largely to its juicy Horrible Hollywood detailing), and had two film adaptations. The first adaptation in 1967 starred Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Paul Burke, Martin Milner, and Susan Hayward, and — just like its source material — was hated by critics yet a huge box-office hit; today it's seen as a So Bad, It's Good Cult Classic. The second adaptation was a Made-for-TV Movie in 1981. The first adaptation also had a parody pseudo-sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, in 1970, helmed by 60's and 70's schlockmeister Russ Meyer.


The novel and film provide examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Jennifer's mother - all she does is demand Jennifer do everything she can to make more money for her, and when Jennifer dies, she milks the situation for all it's worth and makes sure she gets her valuables.
  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: The film never clarities how the three girls met and takes it for granted that they’re already friends from the start, but in the novel it’s explained that they were roommates when they first arrived in New York City.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Tony is much nicer of a guy in the film version than he was in the original book; he truly loved Jennifer even though their love is cut short due to him being diagnosed with Huntington's Chorea, which is ultimately a terminal disease versus his more childish and brutish manner in the book.
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  • Adult Child: At first Tony is a straight example of this trope, being sex-obsessed, loose with money and only interested in getting his own pleasures met. Then his sister reveals that he had to be pulled out of school before first grade and can barely read or count due to an inherited disease, and that he will likely be stunted for his entire life.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Jennifer straight-out says that one can either be loved in a relationship, or love, but never both, and that it's best to just settle for being loved.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Ted. Even though he is referred to as a "fag" throughout the film by several people (and he never outright denies the possibility), he is seen cavorting with another woman in a pool and implies to Neely that he loves her, defending her by saying that she makes him feel "nine feet tall".
  • Award-Bait Song: "(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls" by Dionne Warwick.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Averted hard. Jennifer thinks her relationship with Tony will be secure if she has his baby, only to learn he has a hereditary mental illness. Also, Anne hopes that her baby with Lyon will keep him around and away from affairs, but it doesn't even slow him down.
  • The Baby Trap: Neely complains that Mel has been failing to pull out during intercourse, and she suspects he wants her barefoot and pregnant.
    • Jennifer tricks Tony into getting her pregnant, thinking it'll end their troubles with Miriam. It ends up just making everything worse.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: In the late going, Jennifer commits suicide when she finds out that she has cancer and needs a mastectomy. It doesn't help that the guy she was with — whom she'd believed to love her — revealed himself to be just another man who only cared for her looks, praising her breasts in particular. Actually stated outright in one of her two suicide notes, where she states in the one addressed to her husband that she did it to "save his babies" (this being his affectionate term for her breasts). However, he does have a nervous breakdown after her death, implying he did truly love her.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Anne wants to be with Lyon. Which she gets, along with a daughter, but Lyon is never truly loyal to her and Anne admits to loving him less and less with each affair he has.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing:
    • Helen Lawson. Though Anne is warned of this by several characters, Anne falls for her "sheep" act, feeling sorry for her and trying to be genuine friends with her, until Helen reveals that she was only interested in her as far as she could get her sexually involved with the father of Anne's fiance, Allen Cooper.
    • Lyon is a more subtle variant. Though he sets himself up to be a genial, elegant gentleman, it's clear he has no emotional maturity and is only own to get his own needs met.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: ...sort of. In the film version, Jennifer is played by blonde Sharon Tate, Anne is portrayed by (dark brown) brunette Barbara Parkins and Neely is played by auburn-haired Patty Duke. This is canon. In the book, Jennifer and Anne are blondes and Neely has brown hair.
  • Break the Cutie: The novel is one long arc for Anne and Jennifer. Both start the book kind-hearted, well-meaning women, but Jennifer, already down two failed marriages, several abortions, unwanted surgeries and treatments and a life of being used by her mother, kills herself after realizing she'll have to lose her body and her chance at children, and possibly her fiance in the process. Meanwhile, Anne starts off a naive ingenue desperately in love with Lyon, but loses him over and over again, and also loses one friend to death and the other to a psychiatric hospital. She eventually gets Lyon back, and they get married and have a child, but he starts a brazen, humiliating affair with Neely, and after dumping her begins one with an actress half Anne's age, and she realizes numbly that he will never stop having affairs and will never love her, so her only respite become the "dolls."
  • The Bus Came Back:
    • After Jennifer leaves Tony upon learning about his condition, he disappears from the narrative until Neely runs into him in a sanitarium, his mind completely gone, and he inadvertently helps restart her career.
    • Allen returns towards the end of the book, balding but otherwise satisfied and married to another woman.
  • Career Versus Man: Both Allen and Lyon pressure Anne to quit her job for Henry, which she genuinely likes — Allen, because he doesn't think it's appropriate for the fiancee of someone like him to work, and Lyon, because he's too proud to be supported by a woman while he writes. Anne chooses her job both times.
  • Casting Couch: The Head ensures that Neely is fired so that a young up-and-coming starlet who's sleeping with him can take her place.
  • Celebrity Is Overrated: All Jennifer wants is a happy life with a husband and a baby. Neely likes being on top, but her life is full of long, stressful days (made worse by her being almost non-functional on set), insincere relationships and addiction; despite all the money she's made, most of it is tied up in expenses and taxes, so she has a lot less than she lets on.
  • Christmas Cake:
    • In the film Neely is appalled that she's being replaced with a younger actress - saying she's only 26 (28 in the book).
    • Jennifer is keenly aware of becoming this, given the fact that she's lying about her age, and consents to controversial treatments and mostly-unnecessary plastic surgery to keep looking youthful.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Jennifer's lover Maria was this, becoming extremely possessive of her and refusing to let her leave or make new friends or lovers. Jennifer ends up having to escape her.
  • Compressed Adaptation: The novel takes place over twenty years - beginning in 1945 and finishing in 1965. The film clearly unfolds in a much shorter time frame. It's already the 60's when it starts.
  • Cuckold: Anne becomes this after Lyon begins an affair with Neely. Both of them make the affair extremely obvious, hoping that she'll demand a divorce, but on Henry's advice she pretends to not notice anything in a bid to keep Lyon around. Everybody knows, however, and she's humiliated every time she has to go out and pretend she sees nothing.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Apparent with Jennifer and implied with Neely. The former suffers both verbal abuse and overall disinterest from both her mother and her grandmother, and was basically kept captive by her lesbian lover while in Europe, and the latter is implied to have suffered physical abuse and lived a life of poverty while touring.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Anne names her baby girl "Jennifer."
  • Descent into Addiction: Primarily for Jennifer and Neely, and eventually for Anne as well. Jennifer starts needing pills, or "dolls," to get to sleep, while Neely takes them both to sleep and wake up, and after her career suspension she overdoses multiple times and gets addicted to even harder barbiturates while abroad.
  • The Determinator: While trapped in a sanitarium, Neely is thrown in a bath as punishment. Unwilling to submit, she briefly breaks out after ripping a massive hole in the bath's canvas, which the nurses exclaim has never happened before.
  • Disneyland Dad: After her divorce from Ted, Neely is embittered by the fact that her twins are only ever interested in her for her potential to get them presents.
  • Disposable Fiancé: Allen. In Anne's defense, she never consented to being engaged, had no intentions of marrying him, and had always been in love with Lyon.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Allen is determined to marry Anne, despite her repeated assertions that she's not interested in him. He even flat-out tells her that he gets everything he wants, and she'll be included in that, too.
  • Double Standard: Said by Neely: "When a man says he won't do a scene, that's called 'integrity'; when a woman says she won't do a scene, she's being temperamental." Though this is undercut in the book, where it's underscored how much of a primadonna she is on set.
  • Downer Ending: For all three protagonists in the book: Jennifer kills herself, Neely will probably destroy herself due to her personal and professional hangups, and though Anne gets the man she's been pining after for decades, they exist in a loveless marriage full of affairs and betrayal on his part, and apart from her daughter she is completely alone and friendless. The Film of the Book changes this to a more Bittersweet Ending: while Jennifer is dead and Neely's downward spiral will likely kill her in the near future, Anne renounces the pills and the showbiz life and goes back to her beloved hometown to start over.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Famously, Jennifer overdoses on pills when she learns she'll have to get a mastectomy, ruining her looks even if it means saving her life.
    • Neely bungles a self-harm attempt that makes everyone think she's attempted suicide, which gets her committed.
  • Dump Them All: By the end of the film version, Anne is in this situation. Already ending things with the basically decent Kevin in the hopes of getting back with the faithless Lyon, she decides to dump him as well, despite his claims that he loves her and wants to be with her. It ends with her walking down a snow-covered road, content with her decision.
  • Extreme Doormat: Anne just can't tell Allen no after he basically forces her to get engaged to him. While she's pressured to stay with him by the press and her friends, it's nevertheless difficult to imagine someone like Neely in the same situation. And when she tries to stand up for herself to Lyon, refusing to give up New York to return to Lawrenceville so that he can use her mother's house to jumpstart his writing career, he breaks up with her. She even puts up with his affair with her ex-best friend despite them having a child together, unable to give him up.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Neely. By the end of the novel, there's almost no traces of the friendly, scrappy girl we were introduced to, being replaced by a conniving, selfish, bitter, insecure Alpha Bitch who betrays Anne without a second thought to anybody's happiness except her own.
  • The Farmer and the Viper: Anne, with the help of Lyon, gets her old friend Neely committed to a sanitarium to dry out and supports her after her release in her sobriety and trying to get her Broadway career back on track. Anne’s reward for this is discovering that Neely has begun an affair with Lyon and is flaunting it all over New York, AND being ridiculed in the gossip columns for it as "loser of the week".
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Subverted with Jennifer, who truly wanted to keep the baby but had to abort her and Tony's child due to medical reasons; she didn't want the child to be diagnosed with Huntington's Chorea, which is hereditary. Note that towards the end of her arc, she mentions that she had seven abortions.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Anne and Jennifer, two of the nicest characters in the book, both have blond hair.
  • Hated Hometown: Anne hates Lawrenceville and moves to New York to start fresh. The thought of returning to it permanently disgusts her so much that she accepts Lyon, the love of her life, leaving her if it means she doesn't have to stay there with him.
  • Happily Failed Suicide: Happens to Neely, three times.
  • Happily Married:
    • Neely and Mel, at least at first.
    • Played straight with Jennifer and Tony in the film. Sadly, his illness and her eventual suicide put an end to their short-lived happiness. In the book, she has to practically force him to marry her, and afterwards he only proves himself to be a careless, cheating horndog who lets his sister control Jennifer's life, and they eventually divorce.
  • Horrible Hollywood: The book revels in the grime that lurks beneath the showbiz glamour of the The Golden Age of Hollywood . Susann wasn't the first to explore this, as the decay that surrounded Hollywood with the Fall of the Studio System and the aging of Golden Age performers was already inspiring films like Whatever Happened To Baby Jane in The '60s, but she could go a lot further in the salacious details than films and TV of the time could, and this certainly contributed to the book's huge popularity in its day.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Prince Mirallo. Everything he gave Jennifer was either a family heirloom or a freebie from a company looking to get publicity. Jennifer was well out of that one.
  • The Ingenue: Anne starts the story a sweet, polite virgin very naive to the ways of the world, especially show business. Neely is a subversion; she's a virgin, but is already cynical and rough around the edges.
  • Insecure Love Interest: Neely's affair with Lyon in spades. She refuses to go anywhere without him, wants him spending every night with her, and wheedles him over the phone to assure her that he loves her more than anyone, including his own wife and baby. He complies. Though it does sour his opinion of her.
  • Irony: Anne turns down a chance at marriage with both Allen and Kevin, holding out a torch for First Love Lyon, unable to forget about their chemistry and unwilling to be with a man she doesn't love. When the novel ends, and she and Lyon have been married for years, there's zero passion between them as Lyon carries on numerous affairs, and she holds out for the inevitability of falling completely out of love with him.
  • It's All About Me:
    • After hitting it big, Neely becomes extremely self-centered and shallow, only focusing on her own problems and work. She becomes even worse during her final career resurrection, blatantly and openly screwing over Anne, her first real friend who helped get her her career, because she thinks it's her turn to have whatever she wants, even if it's her best friend's husband.
    • Lyon becomes increasingly self-centered as the novel goes on, forcing Anne to choose between the life in New York that she loves and him, even if it means being in the city she loathes and letting him support her, because he can't stand the idea of her fiscally supporting him (in his view, "controlling" him) — essentially putting her in a tough spot to give up everything just to support his writing career, which he isn't even that good at.
  • Large Ham: As Neely, Patty Duke left very little scenery unchewed.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Played with. Jennifer has had seven abortions, and notes that it must mean that her womb is open and ready for her to finally have a baby, but she has trouble finding someone to have a child with.
  • Limited Wardrobe: Anne is so broke when first moving to New York that she wears the exact same outfit and coat day after day. Only women seem to notice, as men are typically too distracted by her looks.
  • Love Hurts: Seriously, there's not a good love story in here. If you're a faithful and loyal partner, expect to get cheated on and betrayed.
  • Love Will Lead You Back: The naive Anne holds out hope for Lyon for years, despite a lack of any communication from him, despite being urged by others to find new love. She does get involved with an older man, but doesn't truly love him and jumps at the chance at seeing Lyon again. He does come back to her, but not in a way Anne wants at all.
  • Mama Bear: Neely puts up with Helen Lawson's barbs until she insults her sons, at which point she attacks and humiliates her.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Despite being in a relationship with her for over a decade, Kevin doesn't propose to Anne until after he suffers a heart attack — less to do with him realizing his love for her on death's door and more to do with him wanting someone around at night in case he suffers another attack.
  • May–December Romance: Anne and Kevin Gillmore, and Jennifer and both Claude and Winston. In the end, the middle-aged Lyon starts an affair with a nineteen-year-old singer.
  • Minor Flaw, Major Breakup: Neely cruelly ends things with Mel for little other reason than the fact that she's bored with him being so devoted with her. (This bothers the observing Jennifer, who is in the same place as Mel, both being homemaking spouses at this point)
  • Missing Mom: Neely barely spends any time with her twin sons, and Ted eventually sues for custody on the basis that she's not raising them.
  • Ms. Fanservice: All three protagonists, but especially Jennifer. Unfortunately, it also crosses into So Beautiful, It's a Curse for her.
  • My Biological Clock Is Ticking: Jennifer and Anne both fret about how they want children as the years start to creep on them.
  • Nice Girl: Jennifer is genuinely sweet and kind to everyone.
  • Nice Guy: Neely's first husband Mel genuinely loves her and is devoted to, but quickly becomes over his head when they move to California and she quits spending any time with him.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Quite a few. Susann spent the 1940's as a struggling actress, and drew on that experience while writing the book.
    • Neely O'Hara is Judy Garland. Her time in the sanitarium is based on the experiences of Frances Farmer. (Garland was almost cast as Helen Lawson in the 1967 movie.) In the book she is described in terms that evoke Betty Hutton, who had a very similar experience to Terry King's working with Helen Lawson/Ethel Merman.
    • Helen Lawson is Ethel Merman.
    • Jennifer North is Carole Landis with a dash of Marilyn Monroe. Jacqueline Susann had had an affair with Landis and continued to care deeply for her. Carole's suicide inspired Jacqueline to immortalize her as Jennifer.
    • Tony Polar was inspired by Dean Martin, but isn't supposed to actually be him.
  • Senator Winston Adams stands in for either JFK or RFK.
  • Old Maid: Tony's sister Miriam is a virgin in her forties, having dedicated her entire life to Tony.
  • Operation: Jealousy: Fed up with Tony flaking out on marrying her, Jennifer makes him jealous by repeatedly turning him down and pretending to be interested in other men. Fed up, he agrees to get married.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Jennifer has breast cancer, in those days an automatic radical mastectomy. She's devoted her whole emotional life and soul on marrying Winston — who seems to love her for herself — and starting a family. Then she's told pregnancy could cause a recurrence. She tells Winston "I'll be scarred and I won't be able to have any children" and he hears "hysterectomy". Almost willfully, he won't allow her to explain, saying he doesn't mind about no kids, instead effusing over her body, especially her breasts — even saying "these are my babies" — and being horrified at finding the tiny incision where they took the cyst out. That's enough for Jennifer. In her distraught state of mind there's only one thing to do.
  • Pretty in Mink: A few mink coats are worn. Jennifer can't get enough of buying them.
  • The Prima Donna: Neely is noted to be a pain in the ass on set, frequently walking out, faking illnesses and throwing fits whenever she feels slighted. Though she's still a hit at the box office, her movies end up losing money because she puts the production way over budget.
  • Promotion to Parent: Tony's older sister Miriam basically runs his life, because Tony isn't capable of handling adult responsibilities.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: In the end, Anne finally gets Lyon as a husband, a baby, and lives a wealthy life in the city of her dreams... Except she has no friends, her money is entirely dependent on the work of her husband who now hates her and carries on affairs, and she herself becomes dependent on the "dolls," hoping to one day just become numb to everything.
  • Rags to Riches: Anne starts the story a broke newcomer to New York, with a secretarial job, a tiny, shoddy apartment, and an extremely limited wardrobe. After investing the money she got from pawning Allen's engagement ring, and a successful partnership with a popular beauty brand, she goes into her late thirties with a big apartment, designer clothes, and so much money that she'll never have to work a day in her life again.
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: Neely wins an Oscar in the book, and a Grammy in the film.
  • Retail Therapy: Jennifer typically deals with her depressed feelings by blowing her money on new clothes, which she barely wears before handing it down to Anne.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Allen, a millionaire, pretends to be a humble, small-time salesman to test whether or not Anne (who is oblivious to his status, despite everyone else in New York knowing) loves him, or his wealth. Of course, she actually loves neither.
  • Serial Spouse: Helen has been married many times, always ending in a bitter divorce.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Between Anne and Lyon, twice.
  • Sleeping Single: Despite years of being together, Anne and Kevin sleep in separate beds at Anne's demand, highlighting her lack of passion for him.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse:
    • Jennifer essentially is valued entirely for her looks. It comes to the point where she opts to commit suicide when diagnosed with breast cancer.
    • Anne doesn't want to be in the entertainment business at first but she's chosen entirely for her beauty - which leads to her getting hooked on the titular 'dolls'.
  • Spoiled Brat: Allen turns into a Jerkass when he learns Anne doesn't want to sleep with him and truly isn't interested in marrying him, as he thinks he should always get what he wants.
  • Stepford Smiler: Anne becomes this, watching the love of her life cheat on her again and again, knowing she's wasted her life waiting for him, because Henry has advised her to just smile and pretend like the obvious, brazen affair with Neely isn't happening because it means he'll be more likely to return to her in the end. The drugs help.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Anne notes that Lyon is very tall and well-built, with thick dark hair and seemingly permanently tanned skin.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Neely starts out a scrappy and tough, but good-hearted and hardworking showgirl who puts in the effort to get ahead and make a name for herself, and who's loyal to her friends and boyfriend. After the timeskip, she's an entitled Alpha Bitch who makes life hell for everyone on set, who dumps her chump of a husband for being too boring for the guy she's having an affair with, and who's too self-centered to care about anybody's problems but her own. Everyone remarks that she Used to Be a Sweet Kid, and Anne hardly recognizes her. Then she goes Up to Eleven after Anne secures yet another career resurrection for her, blatantly carrying on an affair with Lyon without a shred of empathy for Anne's feelings. She even withholds information about their daughter's hospitalization from Lyon, thinking Anne knows about the affair and is trying to get Lyon home.
  • Ungrateful Bastard:
    • Neely. Anne facilitates her big break, then pays for her stay in a sanitarium and hatches a plot for her career return when she's released. Neely pays her back after all of this by forcefully taking Lyon as a lover, gleefully humiliating Anne and refusing to even let him go home for the night.
    • Yes, it was wrong of Anne to hide her involvement in Lyon's loan because she doesn't want to hurt his pride by making him feel like he owes her, but she genuinely does it out of love and trying to help him, especially considering he's little more than a failure as an author, his passion. He completely flips out on her because of it, feeling emasculated and controlled, and it spurs on his decision to leave with Neely and start an affair. Henry did warn her that he's too old-fashioned to allow himself to be supported by his partner, but he does come off as an Adult Child Jerkass because of it.
  • Unflinching Walk: Ted, who walks away from Neely after being caught cheating on her and doesn't react after she screams at him to go to Hell and as she throws a bottle of champagne at him (and misses.)
  • Uptown Girl: Gender-inverted. The wealthy eligible bachelor Allen falls for the broke ingenue Anne, and the newspapers all clamor to portray it as a truly romantic Cinderella story. Of course, Anne doesn't actually love him at all.
  • Virgin-Shaming: Allen is horrified at the idea that Anne is a 20-year-old virgin saving it for someone special, saying that only "frigid" girls in the city hang onto their virginity that late. To her credit, Anne isn't that bothered, and gets her wish.
  • Wake Up Make Up: Neely has rather good make-up for someone who's ferociously hung over in the scene where Lyon wakes her up.
  • Weight Woe: Neely's career forces her to obsess over her weight, and she starts smoking and stops eating to curb her appetite. Whenever she stops working she takes to bingeing, and her weight yo-yos between overweight and worryingly thin during the course of the novel.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Anne and Neely, right until Lyon and Neely have an affair. Anne forgives Lyon but not Neely.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: Neely goes on a drunken bender, only for her to wake up half-dressed in a motel room with a seedy guy stealing her money and leaving her to her devices without even telling her his name.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: This looks to be Neely O'Hara's best possible fate by the end.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Despite living in a Crapsack World full of unfaithful partners and people who aren't what they're cracked up to be, Anne not only insists on seeing the best in other people and doing right, but also holds a torch for Lyon, refusing to move on from him even when in a new relationship and believing in their love. Neely ends up stabbing her in the back after Anne saves her and her career, and Lyon himself turns out to be a cheating scumbag.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Anne and Lyon. The latter doesn't want marriage so they part on amicable terms, but keep coming back to each other over the years. Anne always wants to make the relationship work, but Lyon makes things... difficult. They Do get together in the end, only for Lyon to cheat on Anne repeatedly as she waits for her to just become numb to all the heartache. At that point, she wasted twenty years holding out a torch for him.
  • Workaholic: After Neely becomes a big star, she spends almost all of her day working, leading her to need pills to function.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: After her unhappy time with Tony and a yearning to quit acting in Europe, Jennifer becomes romantically involved with a wealthy, well-liked senator who seems to truly love her and want a marriage and family with her. Then she learns she has breast cancer and has to get one of her breasts removed, ruining her sex appeal, and she'll never be able to have kids. Realizing even her lover is obsessed with her body and not what she wants, she kills herself and sends said senator into a nervous breakdown.

Alternative Title(s): Valley Of The Dolls


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