May 6, 2024 | Brendan Da Costa

Revealing Facts About Gypsy Rose Lee, The Best Burlesque Performer

Gypsy Rose Lee was the 20th-century burlesque performer who bared it all on stage and became a legend in the process. But the details of her scandalous personal life are far more revealing.

1. She Took It All Off—And Covered It Up

Gypsy Rose Lee was destined to become famous. She spent most of her life under her mother’s thumb and the rest of it in her more talented sister’s shadow. But with a clever wit and a striptease act unlike any other, Gypsy became a star in her own right. But as she took it all off on stage, she covered up the details of her personal life.

Gypsy Rose Lee facing slightly right - 1956Palumbo, Fred, Wikimedia Commons

2. Her Mother Wanted Her To Be A Star

Rose Louise Hovick was born in Seattle, Washington in January 1911. But, even before she came screaming into the world, her destiny was already laid out before her. Her mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, wanted nothing more than to become a star—or raise one. Before Gypsy could even walk, Mother Rose enrolled her in dance classes.

There was just one problem.

Passport Photo of Rose Hovick - 1925Federal Government, Wikimedia Commons

3. Her Sister Was Her Biggest Competition

The moment she set foot on the stage, one thing was obvious: Gypsy was talentless. So, her mother did the only thing she could; she recast her. The very next year, Mother Rose gave birth to another baby girl, June. “If my sister had shown any prospects as a moneymaker,” June later explained, “I would never have been [born]”.

Officially, she kind of never was.

Photo Of June Havoc As Baby June From 1916-17Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

4. Her Mother Was Crazy

“There is no doubt in anyone's mind that [Mother Rose is] crazy”. Those were the cautionary words of Gypsy’s aunt, Belle about her deranged sister. And that was kind of an understatement. Mother Rose forged birth certificates for both Gypsy and June to avoid child labor laws so she could push her children on stage—and into questionable situations.

Gypsy Rose Lee from the film Stage Door Canteen (1943).Film screenshot, Wikimedia Commons


5. She Lived In Her Younger Sister’s Shadow

Evidently, being a crazy stage mom paid off. Before she was even three, Gypsy’s sister June was already headlining shows as the “Tiniest Toe Dancer in the World”. Based on this success, Mother Rose uprooted her girls and took them to Hollywood. But while June’s entertainment career took off, poor Gypsy went to school. Turns out she did have a talent.

Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side - 1946Modern Screen, March 1946, Picryl

6. She Shone Bright—Just Not On Stage

While June continued to dazzle audiences, Gypsy found her own way to shine: in school. To everyone’s surprise, she proved to be “a whiz in the classroom”. Still, Gypsy couldn’t escape her younger sister’s shadow. When she was seven, Mother Rose put Gypsy in the chorus of her sister’s headlining act, Baby June and Her Farmboys.

It was the only attention she ever really got.

Gypsy Rose looking at side.John Irving, Flickr

7. Her Hygiene Was Terrible

In an effort to turn her girls into stars, Gypsy’s mother worked them both to the bone. Sadly, she was neglectful of her basic parenting duties—like medical care. When Gypsy and her sister finally visited a dentist, June had 10 cavities, and Gypsy herself had trench mouth. Somehow, Gypsy’s budding beauty managed to shine through.

Gypsy Rose Lee by Bruno BernardIsabel Santos Pilot, Flickr

8. She Was Beautiful

Gypsy might not have been talented like her younger sister but in addition to her brains, she was also beautiful. With porcelain skin, dark hair and hazel eyes, there was no denying that she had potential. Just not, maybe, for tap dancing. Still, Gypsy and her sister began raking in the dough—but there was trouble afoot.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee smiling and looking at side from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle Of The Yukon (1944)

9. Her Money Kept Disappearing

By the time they were in their early teens, Gypsy and her sister were earning $1,500 a week for their vaudeville act. But, somehow, all of their money kept disappearing. It soon became obvious that their mother had been mismanaging their funds, oftentimes leaving Gypsy and June to go hungry. That’s just when June did the unthinkable.

Gypsy Rose Lee at Camp Livingston smiling  - 1945ArchiTexty, Flickr


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10. Her Sister Abandoned Her

While Gypsy was happy to turn a blind eye to her mother’s faults, June was not. She rebelled by eloping in 1928 and running away to Kansas. Without her sister’s talents, Gypsy couldn’t keep up the act on her own and it fell apart. Even worse, vaudeville was losing out to film with the introduction of the talkies. But her mother kept her working anyway.

Just not in vaudeville.

Publicity photo of June Havoc - 1950sebay, Wikimedia Commons


11. She Was At The Wrong Show

Mother Rose mistakenly (or, quite possibly deliberately) booked Gypsy for the Missouri Theatre in Kansas City. There was just one problem: it was not a vaudeville theater. The venue was, unbeknownst to Gypsy, a burlesque house. But once Gypsy (who had presumably turned 18) saw how much money the dancers were making, she saw her golden ticket.

Passport Photo of Gypsy Rose Lee - 1925Federal Government, Wikimedia Commons

12. She Turned Her Mistake Into Money

There is another account of how Gypsy got her start in burlesque that was even more serendipitous. Allegedly, while performing, the shoulder strap of her dress broke. Despite her best efforts to cover up, the dress fell to her feet as the crowd cheered her on. At that moment, she had a brilliant revelation: “I could be a star without any talent at all!”

Either way, she was determined to become a burlesque star.

Gypsy Rose Lee performing on stage.Isabel Santos Pilot, Flickr

13. She Was Ashamed Of Herself

Just as Gypsy had hoped, burlesque proved to be even more profitable than her days in vaudeville. But she wasn’t exactly proud of her new line of work. When her sister paid her a visit, Gypsy said, “I don't want you to see the show”. To her shame, June did watch the show and saw her sister bare it all on stage in front of a group of rowdy men.

But she was no ordinary burlesque dancer.

Gypsy Rose Lee in movie  ''Babes in Bagdad'' - 1952John Irving, Flickr

14. She Was Kind Of A Book Nerd

Even though the money was rolling in, Gypsy wanted more for herself than the life of a common burlesque dancer. Fortunately for her, even with her shapely legs, elegant neck, and “blooming auburn beauty," her biggest asset was still her brain. When she wasn’t on stage, she read great works of literature and poetry from the likes of Shakespeare and Boccaccio.

And that’s when she put her book learning to good use.

Gypsy Rose Lee facing slightly right - 1956Palumbo, Fred, Wikimedia Commons

15. She Was Witty

Gypsy incorporated her wit and educated sense of humor into her burlesque performances. In a deep, husky voice with a singsong accent, she dazzled her leering audiences with lines like: “I'm a lonesome little Eve. / All I do is sit and grieve. / Like Eve I carry round this apple every night / Looking for an Adam with an appetite”.

Sometimes, however, her mouth got her into trouble.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side - from My Lucky Star (1938)Twentieth Century, My Lucky Star (1938)

16. She Was Clothed—In Spotlight

With all of that book learning, Gypsy didn’t just have wit in her act. She often improvised clever quips with audience members and had priceless one-liners for the press. After a raid at a burlesque club she was performing in, Gypsy famously replied to the media, saying, “I wasn't naked. I was completely covered by a blue spotlight”.

She was almost getting too famous for her own good.

Gypsy Rose Lee at Key West International AirportFlorida Keys--Public Libraries, Wikimedia Commons


17. She Read Tea Leaves

As her unique burlesque performances gained attention, Gypsy knew that it was time for a rebrand. The girl born as Rose Louise Hovick changed her name to Gypsy Rose Lee. Some sources claim that she came up with the name because of her hobby of reading tea leaves. But, that’s likely just one of the made-up versions.

Gypsy Rose Lee, portrait, seated at typewriter - 1956Fred Palumbo, Wikimedia Commons

18. She Had Many Different Stories

There isn’t any real consensus on how Gypsy came up with the name that would make her famous. Even her sister confessed that she didn’t know. The American playwright, Arthur Laurents, tried to put the matter to bed when writing a script based on her memoirs. He asked about the origins of her stage name only to get the cool reply, “I've written 14 versions”.

She also started writing her own checks.

Arthur Laurents, director of the musical Bernard Gotfryd, Wikimedia Commons

19. She Was “The Most Beautiful Girl In the World”

By 1931, Gypsy had perfected her act and was ready for a bigger stage. Performing at Minsky's Burlesque, she became a massive star and received top billing as “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World!” She stayed with Minsky’s for four years, growing her star each year. But even she could feel it: bigger things were calling.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side surprised from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle of the Yukon (1944)

20. She Wanted To Escape Burlesque

Even though she had become a bona fide star with a dignified burlesque act, Gypsy still wanted a more respectable career in show business. In an attempt to get away from the striptease and the tassles, she briefly accepted a role in a Ziegfeld production on Broadway. Suffice to say, it didn't go as planned.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee dancing on stage from - Screaming Mimi (1958)Sage Productions, Screaming Mimi (1958)

21. She Was Best At Doing Nothing

Throughout her life, Gypsy’s younger sister June had encouraged her to take acting classes. Or, frankly, to take any classes to hone what little talent she had. It was advice she should have heeded. After her debut with Ziegfeld, the critics wrote, “Miss Lee is a competent enough accomplice... But it is at doing nothing that she is at her best”.

Actually, she was better at being bad.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side and smiling from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle of the Yukon (1944)

22. She Was A Bad Girl

Despite her misgivings about burlesque, Gypsy returned to the tantalizing style of entertainment when Broadway didn’t work out. In fact, she fell back into burlesque lifestyle with ease. She smoked fine Turkish cigs, spiked her black coffee and even had an affair with the notorious comedian and playboy Rags Ragland.

She embraced her bad girl image in surprising ways.

Rags Ragland In Ringside Maisietrailer screenshot (MGM), Wikimedia Commons


23. She Spent Time In The Clink

At the height of her fame, the authorities and polite society considered burlesque to be immoral. As a result, more often than she would admit, Gypsy found herself clamped in irons every time the authorities raided Minsky’s. But she seemed to enjoy the paddy wagon and iron bars. Or, rather, she seemed to enjoy the bad company she found there.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side and smiling -  from Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle of the Yukon (1944)

24. She Kept Dangerous Friends

As the biggest star in the seedy underworld of burlesque, it didn’t take long for Gypsy to fall in with the wrong crowd. (Or the right one, depending on who you ask.) The infamous thug Waxey Gordon, for example, was a huge fan of Gypsy’s and even financed the procedure to get her teeth capped.

She was, of course, no saint herself.

Waxie-Gordon looking at camera - 1933DeMarsico, Dick, Picryl

25. She Plagiarized—Often

Gypsy didn’t just hang around with racketeers and ruffians—she was kind of one herself. The famous burlesque performer often “borrowed” material from other, non-burlesques acts. When she left Minsky’s for a much higher-paying outfit, for example, she plagiarized the work of Dwight Fiske. Fiske had a reputation for singing witty, risqué numbers to high-end audiences at the Savoy-Plaza.

Based on what happened next, either no one cared about her plagiarism or no one noticed.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side and smiling from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle of the Yukon (1944)

26. She Became The Toast Of The Town

After leaving Minsky’s, Gypsy upgraded her audience and took up residence at the Irving Place Theater. The high-society venue hosted famous writers and columnists like Otis Chatfield-Taylor and even the Earl of Gosford. The New Yorker even confessed, “We have to admit that we went [to Irving Place] for Miss Lee, so to speak”.

Not every high-roller and blue-blood was happy to welcome Gypsy into their ranks.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side from - What's My Line? (1959)Goodson-Todman Productions, What's My Line? (1959)

27. She Was Too “Good” For Charity

Despite her education and more tasteful take on burlesque, not all of high-society welcomed Gypsy Rose Lee as one of their own. For example, when she sported a leotard covered in leaves at a charity function—she teased off every leaf and auctioned them off. However, the charity left her stunned when they turned down the money she raised.

She didn’t need them anyway.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side and smiling -  from Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle of the Yukon (1944)

28. She Had A Sugar Daddy

While performing at the Irving, Gypsy acquired more than acclaim. She landed a boyfriend (read: sugar daddy) named Eddy Braun. Though he was a married man, that didn’t bother Gypsy as long as he kept her dripping in diamonds—and that he did. Sadly, even with all that money, she couldn’t wipe off the stain of her profession.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at man and smiling -  from Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle of the Yukon (1944)

29. She Went To Hollywood

Gypsy tried once again to get out of burlesque, this time taking off to Hollywood. The studio was eager to get her in front of the camera but couldn’t have her burlesque name on the big screen. As such they forced her to appear under her real name, Louise Hovick. They also wanted her to do something more dramatic to clean up her image.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee performing on stage from - Screaming Mimi (1958)Sage Productions, Screaming Mimi (1958)

30. She Had A Sham Marriage

Hoping to bury her reputation as a burlesque dancer even deeper, the studio arranged for Gypsy to marry Arnold "Bob" Mizzy, a dental-supplies manager. Somehow, the complete character makeover didn’t seem to bother Gypsy at all. As June later recalled, Gypsy simply said, “Oh, to hell with them—as long as they spell my name right and get me the money”.

She should have asked for better press.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee smiling from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle of the Yukon (1944)

31. She Couldn’t Act

After polishing off her reputation, Gypsy made her big screen debut in 1937’s You Can’t Have Everything. But her hopes of Hollywood stardom lasted about as long as her fake marriage—ie, it didn’t. The critics panned the film and her acting. After appearing in four more unsuccessful movies, Gypsy went back to New York.

But she feared nothing good was waiting for her back there.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking down from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle of the Yukon (1944)

32. She Was Worth A Million Bucks

At the age of 28, Gypsy feared that her days of burlesque would soon be coming to an end. Thankfully, her sister met the producer Michael Todd who mentioned that he was looking for a leading lady for an upcoming show. When June mentioned Gypsy, Todd exclaimed, “That's a no-talent broad worth a million bucks on any midway!”

It was the beginning of something beautiful—and tragic.

Mike Todd looking at side - 1957CBS Television, Wikimedia Commons

33. She Finally Made It To Broadway

Todd provided Gypsy with the opportunity she had been yearning for: an escape from burlesque. Gypsy starred in a “string of successes” for Todd on Broadway, even investing her own money in the productions to reap the rewards. The match made in heaven culminated in the wildly successful Star and Garter burlesque-inspired production.

But Gypsy wanted more from Todd than top-billing.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side from - What's My Line? (1959)Goodson-Todman Productions, What's My Line? (1959)

34. She Fell In Love For The First Time

Shortly after their partnership began, Gypsy and Todd forged a…”partnership”. “He was spectacular in his way,” June later recalled, “And she loved it”. But, sadly Todd didn’t love Gypsy back. At least, not enough. He was already married and refused to consider a divorce, because he didn't want to risk losing his son. Gypsy, however, wasn’t going to let him go without a fight.

Mike Todd In Belgrade - 1950sStevan Kragujević, CC BY-SA 3.0 RS, Wikimedia Commons

35. She Staged Her Marriage

In 1942, Gypsy made a drastic move. In an effort to make Todd jealous, she announced a sudden engagement to the actor William Alexander Kirkland. Gypsy planned their wedding and hoped that Todd would burst through the doors and stop the marriage, professing an undying love for her. However, when the time came for the “I dos," there was no Todd in sight.

Her heartbreak was only just beginning.

Alexander Kirkland looking at camera - 1932George Hurrell,, Wikimedia Commons

36. Her Lover Betrayed Her

Even after her charade of a marriage, Gypsy kept up her affair with Todd. But the love was gone—and so was Gypsy’s luck. When Todd announced his next production, he hired Joan Blondell, “a real actress”, for the lead instead of Gypsy. Worse yet, he added insult to injury when he told Gypsy that he wanted to marry Blondell.

Her bad luck in love still wasn’t over yet.

Portrait of Joan Blondell looking at camera.oneredsf1, Flickr

37. She Had A Secret Love Child

Gypsy’s marriage to Kirkland had been an elaborate ruse. So there was really no reason for her to honor it—and she definitely didn’t. Throughout her marriage to Kirkland, Gypsy had been having an affair with the film director Otto Preminger. Before long, she found herself pregnant with Preminger’s child. Thankfully, she promptly agreed to divorce Kirkland.

But that hardly made things better.

Otto Preminger portrait - 1976Allan warren, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

38. She Had A Thing For The Big Guys

When it came to men, Gypsy simply didn’t have any luck—and her domineering mother might have had something to do with that. Mother Rose’s advice to Gypsy when she had been younger was, “Men will take everything they can get and give as little as possible in return”. Years later, Gypsy lamented, “Why am I always falling in love with heavies?”

At least she didn’t leave her affairs empty-handed.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side sad from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle of the Yukon (1944)

39. She Lied To Her Son About His Identity

Gypsy hadn’t had a good mother growing up. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t be a good mother herself. She devoted her life to her son, Erik, and protected him from her mistakes. Gypsy didn’t tell Erik about his true identity until he was in his late teens. “I decided to have something no one would ever be able to take away from me,” Gypsy explained.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle Of The Yukon (1944)

40. She Was A Best-Selling Author

Gypsy had always been an avid reader but, in 1941, she surprised her eager fans and tried her own hand at writing. She penned the mystery thriller novel The G-String Murders. But, while the books flew off the shelves, so did the rumors. There was speculation that she had hired a ghost writer to pull off her debut novel.

Regardless, she even advertised herself as “America's Leading Literary Figure”. Remarkably, she still found herself in her sister’s shadow.

Portrait of Gypsy Rose Lee carrying dog at train station, circa 1937Los Angeles Daily News, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

41. She Had A Sibling Rivalry

Just as Gypsy established herself outside of burlesque, June became a mega star with her own breakout role in Pal Joey. The press, sensing a juicy story, drummed up the rivalry about the two famous sisters. Life magazine wrote, “Gypsy thinks June wastes her time on dull people, doing dull things. June thinks Gypsy wastes her time being a literary butterfly”.

The tabloid gossip, however, couldn’t have been further from reality.

Publicity photograph of June Havoc - 1964Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

42. She Was Best Friends With Her Sister

Gypsy and June did little to combat their rivalry in the press. They knew it was good for business. But, outside of the gossip pages, the sisters got on famously, even if they didn’t always approve of each other’s choices. They even decided to live together in Gypsy’s palatial Manhattan townhouse with marble floors and famous artwork on the walls.

But neither of them could escape their mother.

Image Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side - 1955Toronto History, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

43. Her Mother Was Armed And Dangerous

At the height of her fame in the 1930s, Gypsy’s mother became the central figure in a scandalous story that was covered up to salvage Gypsy's reputation. Allegedly, Mother Rose had shot and fatally wounded a woman, Genevieve Augustine, at a boarding house that she was running. While that would have been enough to grab headlines, there was more.

And it was bad news for Gypsy.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side from - What's My Line (1967)Goodson-Todman Productions, What's My Line (1967)

44. Her Mother Had A Secret Lover

Some people, including Gypsy’s son, Erik, believed that there was more to the Augustine story. Famously, Mother Rose’s boarding house had become a haven for lesbians. Even as ink was drying on the gossip pages, people began to speculate that Augustine had been Mother Rose’s lover. And they gave a curious explanation for her fatal actions.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side surprised from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle Of The Yukon (1944)

45. She May Have Been In A Love Triangle

According to Erik, it was Gypsy, and not Mother Rose, who was the central character in this lethal tale. Erik claimed that Mother Rose’s motivation in offing Augustine had been jealousy because of a wildly inappropriate love triangle. Allegedly, Augustine had made a pass at Gypsy, enraging Mother Rose and prompting the fatal encounter.

Later investigations, however, concluded that Augustine had, in fact, ended her own life.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee with a hat looking at side from - Belle of the Yukon (1944)International Pictures (I), Belle Of The Yukon (1944)

46. Her Mother Cursed Her

After all of the drama she had brought, in 1954, Gypsy and her sister were finally free of their mother. Mother Rose passed away from colon cancer—but not before haunting Gypsy with one final remark: “Wherever you go, I'll be right there. When you get your own private kick in the [butt], just remember: it's a present from me to you”.

But Gypsy was determined to have the last laugh.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee smiling and looking upset from - The Gypsy Rose Lee Show (1965-67)KGO, The Gypsy Rose Lee Show (1965-67)

47. She Sold Her Story

Free of her mother’s ghost, Gypsy wrote a memoir of her life that told the whole story of her family. Or, at least, most of it. Gypsy’s memoir turned out to be equal parts fact and fiction—and it didn’t paint her sister in the best light, either. Gypsy’s tell-all, tall tales of the Hovick girls drove a wedge between the once close sisters.

But, Gypsy would have millions to compensate for the broken relationship.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side from - What's My Line (1959)Goodson-Todman Productions, What's My Line (1959)

48. She Saw Her Life On Stage

The story of Gypsy’s rise to fame with her domineering and “crazy” mother became a best-seller (even if it was full of exaggerations and half-truths). With such compelling material, however, it wasn’t long before Gypsy saw her life re-enacted on the same stages that she had once performed her burlesque acts on.

The renowned musicians and writers Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents turned Gypsy’s memoirs into a musical, Gypsy: A Musical Fable. Even today, many critics recognize it as the “greatest American musical”.

Gypsy musical entry.Laura Bittner, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

49. She Had Her Own TV Show

With a secure source of income thanks to her memoirs and the stage and screen adaptations, Gypsy retired from performing. In her later years, she had her own show, The Gypsy Rose Lee Show which aired from 1965 to 1968. She welcomed stars such as Judy Garland and Agnes Moorehead.

But she never lost sight of what had made her rich and famous: burlesque.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee smiling and looking at side from - The Gypsy Rose Lee Show (1965-67)KGO, The Gypsy Rose Lee Show (1965-67)

50. She Gave One Last Performance

In 1969, at the age of 58, Gypsy proved to the world that she did, in fact, have a talent. Even pushing 60, she was still the world’s best burlesque performer. On a trip to Vietnam, Gypsy performed for the American troops, who whooped and hollered with glee and amazement. She later described the performance, saying that the troops “considered her their sexy grandmother".

Sadly, her dancing days were tragically numbered.

Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee dancing on stage from - Screaming Mimi (1958)Sage Productions, Screaming Mimi (1958)

51. Her Mother Had The Last Laugh

Only months after performing in Vietnam, Gypsy received some devastating news. Her doctor made the heartwrenching diagnosis: Gypsy had lung cancer. When she got the news, Gypsy couldn’t help but recall what her mother had said only moments before drawing her last breath. Later, she told her sister, “This is a present, you know. From mother".

She passed away in Los Angeles in 1970.Screenshot of Gypsy Rose Lee looking at side from - What's My Line (1967)Goodson-Todman Productions, What's My Line (1967)

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