March 6, 2024 | Byron Fast

Carnal Facts About Cole Porter, The Singer With A Secret

Cole Porter’s marriage lasted a very respectable 35 years. What most people didn’t know was that it was a complete sham from the very beginning. 

1. He Was Salacious 

While his contemporaries were writing songs about true love, Cole Porter was writing songs about love's dark side. His musicals told tales of wild parties, secret affairs and flagrant substance use. Pretty out there for the early 1900s. The thing was, his life was even wilder than his songs. 

He had one secret, however, that he could never write about in a musical. 

2. He Was A Rich Boy 

Cole Porter was born in little Peru, Indiana on June 19, 1891. His maternal granddad, James Omar Cole, was the "richest man in Indiana," and had coddled Porter's strong-willed mother from a young age while simultaneously ruling the rest of the family with an equally iron will. 

It was an uncomfortable way to live, and once Porter grew a little older, it turned into all-out battle. 

Portrait of Cole Porter, Yale College B.A. - 1913Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

3. His Mother Controlled Him

When Porter was still a boy, his grandfather decided he should become a lawyer. His mother, however, had much different idea: She wanted her son to be musical. She went to desperate lengths. She pushed him to play the violin at six, then piano at eight, and finally he was writing operettas with her help at 10. 

Mom even altered the date on his birth certificate, so he looked younger and even more precocious than he really was. It was a gritty battle for Porter’s future, and it was just getting started.  

Cole Porter is smiling and looking down - 1934Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

4. He Was Pushed In Two Ways 

Porter's grandfather boldly sent the boy to Worcester Academy as a first step to becoming a lawyer. Even then, though, music went with him: He kept an upright piano in his rooms. Clearly, it was time for Porter to choose between pleasing granddad or his mom. Instead, he found a sneaky way to please both. 

Cole Porter (young composer c. 1930's)John Irving, Flickr


5. He Secretly Switched 

Porter eventually ended up at Harvard Law School, which pleased his grandfather immensely. Until he made a scandalous choice. Sure at long last that he wasn't cut out to be a lawyer, Porter switched into the music department. While his mom knew and approved, he kept it completely secret from his grandfather.

Now more than ever he needed to make it in show biz. Only, he didn't.

B&W image of Cole Porter - 1933William Bruce Ellis Ranken, Wikimedia Commons

6. He Had A Disaster On His Hands 

While Porter’s 1915 song “Esmeralda” was a success on Broadway, his first Broadway production was a disaster. See America First was so bad that Porter’s friend, who wrote the book, immediately quit the theater and became a priest. Clearly, Porter was not a successful musician, and his grandfather was going to be furious. 

He desperately needed a distraction, and that came in a disturbingly tragic way. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing white shirt and tie from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

7. He Was A Mystery 

While Porter was worrying about granddad’s reaction, WWI broke out. Porter’s first instinct was to go to Paris and help his country. Some accounts have Porter joining the French Foreign Legion and carrying a collapsible piano on his back and entertaining the army. 

The thing about these stories is that nobody actually knows if they’re true. One thing we do know is that when Porter hit Paris, he was ready to party.  

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is looking at front from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

8. He Turned Into A Bad Boy 

WWI was devastating Europe, but Porter wasn't feeling too down and out. Around this time, he developed scandalous habits. The celebrations in Porter’s apartment were notorious, and the guests included gay people, crossdressers, and even members of the Italian royal family. 

Guests just wanted to have a good time, and if they needed help, there was the offer of recreational substance use. Porter was highly amused—but he was also desperate for something else. 

Cole Porter With A Friend Named Betty Shevlin Smith - 1920sUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

9. He Wanted More 

What Porter really wanted was to be a member of high society. You see, the $500 allowance—which granddad was reluctantly providing—wasn’t quite a princely sum, and his midwestern background wasn’t helping poor Porter move into the best circles of people. 

It was only a matter of time before the industrious Porter found his ticket to the A-List. Yet it was going to cost him dearly.  

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is singing outside from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)


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10. He Met A Sugar Mommy

At a lavish wedding at the Paris Ritz Hotel in 1918, Porter sat down at the piano and performed. In the process, he also began the first step in his destiny. In the audience was a very rich, much older divorcee named Linda Lee Thomas, who was so charmed by him she invited him to dinner at her house the very next night.

Obviously, a rich divorcee would be right up Porter's high society alley. What drew Thomas to Porter, however, was something very dark. 

Linda Lee Thomas passport photo - 1919US Government, Wikimedia Commons


11. He Was The Opposite 

When Thomas met Porter, she was still suffering PTSD from a nasty divorce. She’d married a rich man, who ended up beating her as well as cheating on her. To keep her quiet about the beatings and the straying, the brute had given Linda Lee a cool million in the divorce.

As a result, she was now looking for a companion who was cultured, polite, and calm. Basically everything her ex wasn't, and everything Cole was. There was just one problem, and it wasn't little.

Portrait painting of Linda Lee Thomas by Emil Fuchs - 1906Emil Fuchs, Wikimedia Commons

12. He Needed A Woman 

The truth was, Cole Porter was very much gay...but he still began a relationship with her. After all, besides Thomas's mountains of money and social class, Porter also needed her to cover up his scandalous preferences from the prejudiced world. Still, there was a twist. Thomas knew about Porter's leanings, and the two even had a deep companionship. 

So, despite Thomas being up to 14 years Porter's senior, they eventually decided to become man and wife. Really, this only amped up Porter's hedonistic ways. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit and talking with female from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

13. It Was Complicated 

The house in Paris that Porter shared with Thomas was so large that they actually rented out rooms to friends, including a man named Howard Sturges. Though he started out as Thomas’s friend, he apparently quite quickly made the move to Porter’s bed. If this doesn’t sound complicated enough, Sturges also became the couple’s constant travel companion. 

Thomas was soon demanding that Porter change his ways. But not in the way you may think. 

Portrait of Howard Sturges - 1921 (Passport photo)Passport photo 1921, Wikimedia Commons

14. She Wanted To Change Him

For all the honesty about their bedroom life, Thomas was still unsatisfied about one thing in their marriage. With her high-class tastes, she wanted Porter to start making more classical music, even using her connections to have the famous Igor Stravinsky teach him. But it did no good. 

You see, Porter loved writing silly little ditties, even if they didn't pay well. The next development meant he didn't even need to care about that. 

Portrait of Igor Stravinsky - 1937Harris & Ewing Collection, Wikimedia Commons

15. He Got Rich Overnight  

In 1923, tragedy struck the Porter household. Porter’s grandfather had passed...but this meant something big was coming in Porter’s direction. He immediately got about a million dollars in cash, with a family trust to follow. Porter and Thomas’ combined wealth had soared into the stratosphere overnight.

Their first project was to make their home jaw droppingly opulent, with lacquered tables and Art Deco designs. Their second project was to say goodbye to it all. 

Elsa Maxwell with Cole Porter smiling - 1934Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

16. They Packed It All Up

Porter and Thomas had amassed quite a collection of stuff, and they needed to hire several private rail cars to move it. And where were they going? They’d decided they were through with Paris and needed to be in Venice, Italy. This wasn’t exactly an AirBnb situation. The Porters rented a literal palace for their lodging, and the lavish parties soon started up. 

Sure, Porter and Thomas had thrown some crazy parties in Paris. The ones in Venice, however, went to a whole different level. 

Gerald Murphy, Genevieve Carpenter, Cole Porter and Sara Murphy in Venice - 1923Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons


17. He Took It To Extremes

One trick Porter had in Venice was to use its famous canals for his parties. To do this, he’d rent a barge and make a stunning conversion of it into a nightclub. Then Porter hired an entire jazz ensemble led by Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson to really belt out the hits. 

That said, the night club barge was just for fun. Some of their parties had very specific goals. 

Cole Porter, Linda Lee Thomas, Bernard Berenson, and Howard Sturges in gondola, 1923Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

18. They Were Over The Top

For one of their celebrations in Venice, Porter and his wife really wanted to impress. As the guests arrived, a fabulous line of 50 gondoliers greeted them and helped with their coats. Then again, the Russian ballet master Sergei Diaghilev also lived in Venice and was frequently a guest at their parties, so impressing him took a lot. 

Diaghilev's presence also sparked disaster.

Portrait of Serge Diaghilev - 1910Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

19. He Met Someone New

Thomas couldn't help herself when it came to Diaghilev; she was once more set on having him hire Porter into a better class of music, hoping Porter would score one of his magnificent ballets. Porter did something much different. Although Porter dodged this new "respectable" music job, Diaghilev did help him find a playmate in the form of the young poet Boris Kochno. 

Kochno even reportedly inspired Porter to write a gleeful little song called “I’m In Love Again”. But it wasn't all gleeful. Portrait of Boris Kochno, ballet director.Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

20. His Wife Had A Meltdown 

Thomas knew that Porter was gay, yes, but his relationship with Kochno still hurt. Here Porter was writing love songs about his new man, and Thomas was feeling left out. She insisted that Porter return to New York for a while so she could think and be alone.

Porter’s marriage was on the edge of disaster. As it turned out, so was his career. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is talking with other male from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

21. They Dropped Him 

Back in New York, Porter tried his hand at writing for a show called Greenwich Village Follies. It was a humiliating spiral. Audiences didn't like his songs, and producers removed them from the show one by one. By the time they were ready for a cross country tour, not one of Porter's songs remained. 

This failure devastated Porter, and he saw only one drastic solution: He wanted to quit music forever. Until, that is, fate came his way again.

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is looking upset from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

22. He Was Rude 

Lucky for Porter, he did get another show. Paris was right up his alley, and he adorned the musical with a scandalous song. This was his infamous “Let’s Do It,” with even a title that censors deemed too much. Porter reluctantly put a little tail on the song’s name, and it became “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love”. 

Paris turned into a huge hit, and it meant an even bigger budget for his next project. Of course, this also set it up for a huge downfall. Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is looking upset from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)


23. He Crashed 

Riding the wave of popularity from Paris, Porter wrote Wake Up and Dreamwhich was going to be one expensive extravaganza. The show had 24 sets and an international cast, wearing an astonishing 500 different costumes. Although the show was a smash in London, when it hit Broadway it crashed and burned. Well, first the stock market crashed and then the show did. 

So when Porter's next show also failed, he turned desperate. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is looking sad - from De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

24. He Had A Guardian Angel

In 1929, Fifty Million Frenchmen was quietly tanking at the box office, with critics sneering that there wasn't one "hit song in the show". Producers had just told Porter they were going to shutter it, then a guardian angel came to his rescue. Songwriter Irving Berlin, who admired Porter, paid to put up gushing ads about the show to draw audiences in.

But this sort of heartwarming kindness would also turn into scandal. 

Irving Berlin watching auditions on stage of the St. James Theatre - 1948Al Aumuller, Wikimedia Commons

25. He Was Part Of A Cabal

Around this time, journalists of the day started believing that certain gay people in the entertainment industry wielded immense power. Porter, with his fancy friends and Broadway saves, was obviously one of them, and tabloid journalists put him in a group they called “homintern”. 

According to these writers, this was a dangerous group whose frightening aim was complete control of the arts. But if they were scandalized by Porter now, they would certainly be scandalized by his next move. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is looking upset outside - from De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

26. It Was Too Much

Porter’s next musical, The New Yorkers, celebrated all things New York...including a young streetwalker trying to sell her body for cash. Porter wrote her a song that he bluntly titled “Love for Sale". The idea was to have the performer sing it as she paces the street looking for her next customer. 

This was going to be too much for the censors, so to save the song they moved it from the street to a nightclub. Except it wasn’t just the change of scene that saved “Love For Sale”. It was also the person who sang it. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) entering the club from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

27. There Was A Double Standard 

Porter’s “Love for Sale” was causing quite the stir. So, almost overnight they decided to change the performer who would sing it. The switch was from the white singer Kathryn Crawford to the Black performer Elisabeth know, as if it was okay only for a woman of color to sing this ribald song.

The haters, however, were not through making trouble for Porter.

Portrait of Elizabeth Welch in her London Apartment - 1977Allan warren, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

28. He Was Naughty

It’s pretty clear what Porter was writing about in "Love for Sale" when you consider this lyric: “If you want to buy my wares, follow me and climb the stairs”. In fact, the song was so end-to-end spicy, the radio refused to play it with lyrics, and instead the production recorded an all-instrumental version. 

Which, for what it's worth, became a huge hit. And suddenly, a shift took place in Porter's life. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit and looking surprised from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

29. He Was A Show-Off

The New Yorkers became a colossal hit, and more followed. After years of struggling in near total (if lavish) anonymity, Porter was now on the top of his game. He spend no time flaunting it. One of his favorite things to do was to bust into his own opening nights with a grand entrance, then sit at the front and soak up his own genius.

As playwright Russel Crouse quipped, his behavior was "as indecent as that of a bridegroom who has a good time at his own wedding". Yet for all this boasting behavior, Porter knew what to keep on the down-low. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit and looking surprised from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

30. He Kept Things From The Public

Although Porter and Thomas had reconciled from their Venetian rift, Porter was still spending immense amounts of time lavishing his attention on other men—and the public had no idea. While they assumed his giddy songs were about women, they were really tributes to the men in his life. 

He wrote “Easy to Love” for an architect who he had a thing for. Dancer Nelson Barclift said that “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” was their song. Others say that Barclift was the inspiration for “Night and Day”. But hush-hush relationships with men wasn’t enough for Porter. B&W photo of Nelson Barclift dancing in dress.Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons

31. He Dressed Them Up   

When he was in need of some male attention ASAP, Porter would sneak down to the docks and pick up random sailors. Then, if he brought a man up to his apartment, he had a sneaky way to get him out. He’d dress him up as a delivery man and off he’d go. 

Porter was certainly getting around town. When he decided to move to Hollywood, he really let loose. 

Cole Porter, Linda Porter, Roger Stearns and French.Carl Van Vechten, Wikimedia Commons

32. He Liked To One-Up Friends

Once the now very famous Porter arrived in Hollywood, he was very much ready to party. Director George Cukor was notorious for throwing all-male pool parties, and Porter dove right in. But scandal followed him wherever he went. Porter eventually managed to make an enemy of Cukor when he decided to outdo the director and throw his own all-male parties, which soon became the hottest ticket in town.

Porter seemed to have a bottomless pit for attention, and he would go to bizarre and costly ways to get it. 

Director George Cukor, full length portrait on garden terrace - 1978Mary Frampton, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

33. He Went To Incredible Lengths

The story goes that Porter was once enamored with a repairman he’d met. To get the man to come to his house, he came up with a bizarre plan. He started breaking his home appliances. With a broken appliance, he could call the man for a house call. Let me see…broken appliances, all male parties. 

It was only a matter of time before Porter’s wife woke up and smelled the coffee. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing shirt and white hat with glasses is looking up from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

34. He Hurt Her 

Again, Porter's wife Linda Lee Thomas had signed up for a lavender marriage, but she hadn't signed up for this. She thought Porter's flagrant affairs were at the risk of hurting his career, not to mention her own reputation, and she tried to convince him to leave the City of Angels for somewhere more innocent.

When he refused, chaos broke loose. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is talking with a female -  from  De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

35. Things Were Not Okay

After getting nowhere with her husband, Thomas decided to take matters into her own hands. She up and left their Hollywood home to go back to their house in Paris. And that was far from all: Amidst Porter's indecorous behavior, Thomas was considering divorce.

Although Porter finally snapped to and headed to Europe to fix things between them, it was a shaky reunion. The future was about to get even shakier. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) looking at side from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

36. He Took A Terrifying Fall 

Porter arrived in the US still fretting about his wife, and not long after he went for a horseback ride while staying at his friend's Long Island farm. It led to a vicious accident. While riding, Porter and the steed took a terrifying tumble. As Porter lay there in agony, praying for help, he may have realized the disturbing truth already. Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) having help from two other man from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

37. He Got A Brutal Diagnosis

When Thomas heard about Porter’s accident, she rushed to be by his side. As soon as she got there, she heard the worst news imaginable. In the accident, the horse had crushed both of Porter’s legs, and the doctors felt they needed to amputate both of them. This is where it went from tragic to desperate.  

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) looking at side from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

38. He Couldn't Accept It

Upon hearing this news, both Thomas and Porter simply couldn't accept it, and said they wouldn't amputate. Thomas even brought in another doctor for a second opinion, and still refused when they supported amputation too. Although in shock, Thomas was also confident that the doctors were wrong, and her confidence came from a surprising source.  

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) looking at side from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

39. She Had An Idea 

Believe it or not, Thomas had experience dealing with leg amputation. Her first husband had damaged his leg in a car accident and, just like with Porter, the doctors seemed intent on amputation. The couple had said no to the doctors, however, and the leg managed to heal.

Thomas was sure it would be the same for Porter, and they stayed the course. It wasn't what they hoped for. 

Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) and Linda Porter (Ashley Judd) walking outside from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

40. He Just Kept Going

Although Porter did avoid amputation, his legs never did fully heal even after an incredible amount of surgeries, and he had to use implements to get around. Still, this didn't stop him one bit. He continued with his two great passions in his life: writing great musicals and carrying on with men. 

This time, though, Thomas was reconciled to it, and the two were closer than ever. But that didn't mean it was always a good thing. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) in white shirt is looking at side from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

41. He Was Happily Debauched 

When he had finally stepped up from a wheelchair to a cane, Porter decided it was high time to start enjoying life again. He got a house by the beach to take his new male companions, and he ramped up in other ways. The house soon became a party palace, and reports say that there were sometimes more than 50 army people kissing and canoodling. 

But this time, Porter took it too far.

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) in costume is playing on the piano from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

42. He Hurt Himself

Porter wanted to get right back into living life, but as usual he wanted too much, too fast. Around the time he was having these bashes, he tripped while walking on stairs and broke one of his legs again, setting back his recovery an immense amount. Yet Porter still wouldn't back down.  

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is standing outside from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

43. He Climbed Back On  

Even with all this going on, Porter got it in his head to visit Machu Picchu, the incredible ruins nestled high in the mountains of Peru. In spite of his nearly useless legs, Porter got on a horse—remember it was a horse that crushed his legs in the first place—and rode up the dangerous mountain. 

When he couldn’t continue on horseback, he just had his assistant carry him. This wasn't his last diva moment either.

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit is standing outside from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

44. He Wanted The Best 

By 1946, Porter was such a legend that a biopic, Night and Day, was coming out about him. The producers asked for Porter’s opinion, and he jokingly—and I’d say arrogantly—suggested the most handsome man in Hollywood, Cary Grant. Except the studio didn’t get that Porter was joking and went off and hired Grant. 

It didn't seem to matter that Grant looked or acted nothing at all like Porter. Besides, that was the least of the film's problems.Gary Grant publicity still from Suspicion - 1941RKO, Wikimedia Commons

45. They Massaged The Truth 

These were the days of the Studio Production Code, and it was near impossible to mention anything about anyone being gay. As a result, the producers falsely portrayed Porter’s marriage with a typical courtship story followed by a conventional marriage. In short, they decided on a bald-faced lie. 

You’d assume that Porter would go mad with anger. Nope, it turned out he loved a lie. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit and looking at side from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

46. He Was Giddy 

Porter was reportedly happy with Night and Day because of just how much it diverged from reality. He particularly loved the idea of Cary Grant, who was rumored to be closeted himself, playing such a wildly straight version of himself and his story. But Porter still had some truths to tell. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit and looking up from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

47. He Still Had It 

Even though post-WWII audiences had cooled on Porter’s style of “champagne and parties” theater, Porter wanted to keep making Broadway shows. When he started shopping around his newest idea, he got a shock. Because he was no longer Broadway royalty, at first no one would give him any money. 

Through some desperate begging, Porter raised the money and surprised everyone. Kiss Me Kate was his biggest hit of all time. Sadly, Porter’s hit making days would soon be over. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) wearing suit and talking from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

48. He Experienced A Succession Of Tragedies 

For a while, it seemed like Porter would never stop writing musicals, but then three tragedies struck him down. It started with the passing of his mother in 1952, followed by his wife just two years later. Still reeling from the loss of the two most important women in his life, Porter got a call from his doctor. There was more bad news. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) looking sad at side from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

49. He Lost His Muse 

Porter was still mourning his losses when the doctor told him that one of his legs had gotten worse, and that they once again recommended amputation. Without Thomas to stand up to the doctors with him, Porter complied this time. Removing his leg turned out to be fatal. Not to his life, but to his career. 

After this, he simply stopped writing music. With no wife, mother, or music, Porter’s life took a turn for the worse. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) and Linda Porter (Ashley Judd) laying on the bed from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

50. He Passed Alone

At the end of his life, Porter became quite depressed and sadly lost interest in living. One day, a friend tried to bring Porter out of his depression with a question: Wasn’t there somebody you’d regret not seeing again after you’d gone? At first Porter said there was no one. A little later he did think of an answer. He said he’d miss his pair of Queen Anne chairs. 

Porter passed on October 15, 1964 of kidney failure. Perhaps most tragically of all, there wasn’t a single friend or relative present at the time. 

Screenshot of Cole Porter (Kevin Kline) seating and looking at side  from - De-Lovely (2004)MGM, De-Lovely (2004)

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