On the Epic Life of Ernest Hemingway

As a boy he was tall, quiet, shy, awkward (especially around women) and yet within a handful of years he would become the ultimate international symbol of machismo, bravado, strength, and self-confidence. With every biography a writer must reckon with both the one-dimensional image of the man, and also with the inevitable complexity behind his facade. Ernest Hemingway, through grit and ambition (alongside stretching the truth from time to time), made himself into the most celebrated American writer since Mark Twain. He was the essential 20th century novelist, both in terms of style as well as content. For a century of future authors his unique prose was inescapable. Both man and myth, he was at once a big game hunter, deep sea fisherman, and boxing aficionado, yet he was also a person of extraordinary subtly, tenderness, and kindness to his friends.

He was born on July 21st, 1899. Hemingway had four sisters and a younger brother. They lived in a well-mannered Chicago suburb: Oak Park, Illinois -a town that once boasted of its numerous churches. The Hemingways frequently vacationed at Walloon Lake in Michigan. Ernest’s father, Clarence “Ed” Hemingway, was a family doctor. He was a devoted father and a lover of the outdoors. He suffered from extensive bouts of depression. Twice he briefly departed from the family due to his anxieties. Ernest’s mother, Grace Hall Hemingway, had married Ed after abandoning her dream of becoming an opera singer. She earned more money than her husband teaching music lessons. Considerable Freudian speculation has been made about the androgynous games she played with her children, such as playing with dolls, tea, and cross-dressing the boys. The Hemingway children later blamed their father’s troubles on their mother’s selfishness. Both of Hemingway’s parents were austere and old-fashioned -they were opponents of alcohol and dancing.

Hemingway’s boyhood heroes were Theodore Roosevelt, O. Henry, Jack London, and Rudyard Kipling. He was, by all accounts, a good student. He was a big, handsome, and slightly awkward boy who was shy, slightly clumsy, nearsighted, and yet a lover of the outdoors and of boxing.

After graduating from High School, Ernest Hemingway wanted to join the military to fight in the descending chaos in Europe that was to become the ‘Great War’ (World War I). However, his parents refused to allow the teenager to enlist so they struck up a bargain and Ernest got his first job at the Kansas City Star where he learned to “use short sentences” and declarative “short first paragraphs.” As a reporter he covered all manner of regional stories. After he turned 18 he no longer needed his parents permission to join the war. Immediately he signed up for the International Red Cross ambulance service where he was dispatched to Italy for a munitions disaster. He and a friend were soon cleaning up mangled corpses from the battle scene. Hemingway drove an ambulance for weeks. He was assigned to the Italian army fighting the Austrians in the Italian alps. Hemingway volunteered to distribute supplies to the men at the frontline trenches when suddenly an enemy mortar shell exploded three feet away from him. In the explosion one soldier was killed and another had his legs blown off. Hemingway was blown clear off the ground. Some 220 shrapnel shards ripped into his legs and scalp, causing the first of many serious concussions in his lifetime. He was picked up by medical staff on a stretcher but an enemy machine gunner opened fire lodging bullets into Hemingway’s right knee and foot. He initially refused treatment because there were others in greater need. He then endured the removal of shrapnel without anesthetic. The wounds seemed severe and his life was in question yet he survived. He was transported to Milan for further surgeries. In honor of his efforts Italy awarded Hemingway the Silver Medal.

While recovering in the hospital in Milan, Hemingway fell in love with his night nurse -a flirtatious auburn-haired woman seven years his senior named Agnes von Kurowsky. He called her “Ag” and she called him “kid.” She was engaged to another man, but nevertheless Hemingway dreamed of marriage to her. When he was well enough he returned home to Oak Park where he was honored as a war hero. He told tale tales about his time in the war, many of them outright lies and exaggerations, but he soon refused to speak about his experience. Faced with a degree of trauma from what he had witnessed, he grew frightened of sleeping alone or in the dark. He held onto the promise that he would soon be married to Agnes, but one day he received a letter from her dilvulging her true feelings. She explaining that he was only a kid and she loved him more as a mother than as a sweetheart. Hemingway fell into a deep, listless, depression while he lived at home. He eventually returned to his typewriter as a reporter again. He moved to Michigan and then to Toronto. In the summer of 1920 he went to his family’s cabin at Walloon Lake. He was restless, sorrowful, and he had a falling out with his mother after she accused him of being lazy.

Hemingway packed up and moved to Chicago where he became friendly with the celebrated writer, Sherwood Anderson. One night at a friend’s party in October, Hemingway was introduced to Hadley Richardson -a shy product of a well-to-do, yet troubled family from St. Louis. Her alcoholic father had shot himself when she was just 13, her beloved sister had burned to death, and Hadley had suffered a nervous breakdown while attending Bryn Mawr. She had been forced to return home to care for her unstable mother. Sometimes she considered suicide. Hadley was eager to meet someone new to build a life together. She was eight years older than Hemingway. Ernest and Hadley spent much time together in Chicago before getting married at a Methodist Church not far from Walloon Lake in Michigan. They dreamed of traveling Europe together. Sherwood Anderson convinced them to go to Paris where it was cheap and literary culture was flourishing. So they did just that. Their first home was a fourth floor walk-up flat in Paris. It was a furnished rental in the Latin quarter of Paris. They met Sherwood Anderson’s writerly, artist friends, especially Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway was drawn to Stein’s modern art collection: Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso. Hemingway became good friends with Sylvia Beach who ran Shakespeare & Co and other writers who gathered there (like James Joyce).

The Hemingways traveled widely to Italy and Spain (where Hemingway first witnessed bull-fighting). Hadley had an inheritance which allowed for an easy life. During this time, Hemingway was a foreign correspondent writing about a variety of European issues for newspapers like The Toronto Star. In particular, he covered the war between Turkey and Greece in 1919 where he witnessed the burning of Smyrna. As Hemingway’s name began gaining traction, Hadley mistakenly lost most of his original manuscripts including the early drafts of his novel which had been years in the making. It was a grave disappointment for Ernest. Two weeks later Hadley became pregnant much to Hemingway’s dismay. He believed himself to be too young at age 23 to be a father.

Nevertheless, the Hemingways returned to Toronto for the birth of their son, Jack (“Bumby”). Hemingway took a steady job with The Toronto Star and the paper was eager to retain their popular correspondent, but privately Hemingway was frustrated and within four months the Hemingways moved back to Paris where Ernest poured himself into his creative writing. He penned his first collection of short stories, including the highly controversial “Up In Michigan” and his critically acclaimed collection entitled In Our Time. He tried to remain focused -“write one true sentence, write the truest sentence you know” became his maxim. Despite a crying newborn and new friends occasionally dropping in (like F. Scott Fitzgerald) Hemingway continued to write. And when he wrote he bucked the trend. The modernist style du jour was difficult, dense, and challenging for the average reader: Joyce, Faulkner, and e.e. cummings were all difficult -yet Hemingway could be read by high schoolers and literary scholars alike.

He began writing his first novel -which was to become The Sun Also Rises– while en route to Valencia and Madrid. It was partly inspired by Hemingway’s friendly competition with F. Scott Fitzgerald and his publication of The Great Gatsby. The Hemingways traveled with a group of friends. They drank and everyone was having affairs within the group at the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona, Spain. This formed the backdrop of the novel. Hemingway was pleased with his new novel but he was displeased with the sales of his previous book, In Our Time, despite its critical acclaim. In order to get out of his contract with his initial publisher he wrote The Torrents of Spring, a cruel parody lampooning Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway’s friend. The book was sure to be rejected which thus opened Hemingway for a new relationship with Max Perkins of Scribner’s (at the recommendation of F. Scott Fitzgerald).

Hadley thought The Sun Also Rises was detestable but by this time Ernest paid her little mind. Another woman had gained his attention. She was a friend of Hadley’s -wealthy, flirtatious, and well-read. Hemingway began courting Pauline Pfeiffer while she came to visit the Hemingways. He tragically felt himself torn between the two women. He would later lament that he chose happiness, selfishness, and love with Pauline over his commitment to his then wife and son (in later life he remarked that Hadley was the only woman he ever truly loved). Pauline aggressively pursued Ernest throughout a period of weeks. In response, Hadley wrote up a contract of sorts that Pauline and Ernest were to spend 100 days apart and afterward, if they still wanted one another, she would grant a divorce to Ernest. Hadley and their son “Bumby” sailed for the United States while Ernest and Pauline remained in Paris. When the contract terms were met, Hadley kept her promise and granted a divorce. Ernest and Pauline were married on May 10, 1927 in Paris.

Shortly after their marriage Hemingway dreamed of continuing his lifestyle: Paris cafés, drinking, traveling, bullfights. He began a novel about a father and son but he quickly abandoned it. He published a short story collection, Men Without Women, but it was controversial and it did not sell very well (although it contained some of his most memorable stories like “Hills Like White Elephants”). He then injured himself by accidentally pulling a skylight onto his head leaving a visible scar on his forehead.

In March 1928 Ernest and Pauline left France. Pauline was pregnant at the time. They moved to Key West, Florida where Hemingway practiced ocean fishing. Then they relocated to Pauline’s parent’s home in Arkansas and finally to Kansas City where Patrick Hemingway was born by Caesarean section. All the while Ernest was working and re-working his next novel, A Farewell To Arms. It was released to great acclaim being both a financial and critical success. He quickly rose to the top of the literary world. Tall tales of the mythical Hemingway began circulating. He became a literary man’s man: a fisher, big game hunter, a wounded soldier, a boxer, a drinker, a world-traveler, and a father.

In the late Fall of 1928 Hemingway’s father was spiraling out of control. His depression and anxiety became acute. On December 6th he came home early at noon, burned some of his personal papers, took his father’s civil war gun, and promptly shot himself. Ernest was in shock at first but he called his father a coward and blamed his mother for years the trouble.

Hemingway and Pauline packed up and left the mainland United States. They moved to an antebellum house in Key West, Florida. Their daily costs were covered by Pauline’s Trust Fund. The house was a gift from Pauline’s wealthy Uncle Gus who appreciated Hemingway’s writing. The couple lived a very happy life for eight years -Pauline supported her husband while he fished the Gulf Stream and maintained his strict writer’s discipline. He wrote in the cold mornings, after lunch he enjoyed himself. He wrote nonfiction: Death In The Afternoon, a book about bullfighting. Also Pauline’s Uncle Gus financed a big game hunting trip in Kenya. Hemingway hoped to mirror his hero, Theodore Roosevelt. Hemingway appreciated the isolation in Africa where he was unknown. He loved the countryside and he found inspiration for many of his short stories as well as another nonfiction work, Green Hills of Africa.

Hemingway returned to Key West and fished from his boat which he named the Pilar -a nickname for his wife Pauline. Hemingway drank copiously from his favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s and he entertained friends, challenging anyone and everyone to a boxing match. As time passed, Hemingway grew weary of Pauline and of his home life. One night at Sloppy Joe’s Hemingway was introduced to Martha Gellhorn -a young Bryn Mawr writer who was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a ‘new woman’ who had written a novel and had two previous romantic affairs with married men. The attraction between Ernest and Martha was immediate. At the same time Hemingway had cobbled together a new novel amidst growing criticism of his more recent works –To Have And Have Not– a novel that was not particularly well-received among critics.

With the coming disintegration of the world order in Europe, Spain had descended into extreme factionalism between fascists, communists, anarchists, Trotskyites, socialists, liberals, conservatives, and so on. In 1936, Hemingway traveled to Madrid to write about the brewing civil war. Martha Gellhorn traveled to Spain, too, and the two immediately commenced an affair. There were also a collection of literary celebrities that circulated around the aura of vigor and energy that was Hemingway -John Dos Passos, the actor Errol Flynn, and other literary figures and journalists. Things became dangerous when Stalin’s Soviet Union began taking over parts of the country, quietly killing anyone who dissented. Hemingway narrated The Spanish Earth -a documentary about the loyalist peasants in Spain. It was intended to raise global awareness about the plight of Spain. Gellhorn prevailed upon the first lady to screen the documentary at the White House, though the United States remained officially neutral. Hemingway returned to Spain several more times and watched in horror as the fascists continued to gain ground.

When Pauline learned of Hemingway’s affair with Gellhorn, she did everything she could to keep her marriage alive but it was to no avail. Hemingway invited Gellhorn to join him while he lived in Cuba and began writing For Whom The Bells Tolls (it was later nominated for the Pulitzer Prize but the Board denied its award on moral grounds). However, Gellhorn was disenchanted with being cooped up in a Havana hotel so she rented a hilltop property on acreage called the Finca Vigia (“lookout farm”) -Hemingway’s home for the next two decades. Gradually, Hemingway’s divorce from Pauline was becoming apparent. On September 3, 1939 (two days after Hitler’s forces invaded Poland) Hemingway told Pauline he was leaving for good. He had turned his back on Pauline, a woman who had aggressively pursued him, bore him a child, and who had supported him through much of his early career. Her family’s wealthy family had kept the Hemingways stable. They divorced in 1940 and seventeen days later the 41 year old Hemingway married the 32 year old Martha Gellhorn in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The newly married couple traveled to China where Martha reported on the escalating political tensions and Hemingway secretly agreed to be a Soviet informer though he actually provided no information to the Soviets during this time. When he returned to Cuba, Hemingway responded to the call from Washington for civilians to help patrol the shipping lines of the Gulf for enemy submarines. Hemingway gathered a ragtag “hooligan navy” who hatched an absurd plan to to lure enemy vessels to the surface and attack them from the Pilar. In all his time on this misadventure, the crew only spotted one enemy submarine but it was far too fast of a vessel to attack. Hemingway later reflected on the era as a “seaborne comic-strip.”

At the time, it was becoming apparent to Ernest that Martha was not going to live the home life of his previous wife, Pauline. In contrast, Martha was tempestuous and driven. She began traveling abroad for reporting and Hemingway grew resentful. In turn, she resented his drunken misadventures aboard the Pilar. While the world was at war he was drinking excessively with his friends and rarely writing. Their children remembered extraordinary shouting matches between Ernest and Martha. She left Hemingway in Cuba to report on the growing war in Europe for Colliers, while Hemingway grew depressed and often drank himself to sleep. When Martha returned to Cuba she tried to repair their marriage but it was no good. Ernest traveled to London for the war aboard a military aircraft, but he forced Martha to travel alone aboard a ship carrying explosives -the sole civilian aboard the ship. Their marriage was effectively over.

Hemingway arrived in England 11 days before Martha. He was worried he might not survive this war -perhaps his luck had finally run out. In England, Hemingway quickly became the center of attention for American leaders and journalists. One day at lunch, he walked up to the table of the playwright Irwin Shaw and asked to be introduced to his companion -a 36 year old correspondent for Time and Life magazines. Her name was Mary Welsh. Her husband was out of the country and several men began pursuing her. However, while courting her Hemingway got into a serious car accident when his driver accidentally crashed his taxi. Hemingway’s head was smashed and his knees were injured. The trauma from his injuries would last for the rest of his life.

When Martha arrived she was unsympathetic to his plight. She found him bandaged and in bed. She left Hemingway to fend for himself, while Mary Welsh brought him flowers. Upon his release from the hospital he continued his pursuit of Mary Welsh. He crossed the English Channel near Omaha Beach. He was a war correspondent on D-Day. Later he was displeased to learn that Martha had secretly snuck onboard a military ship and landed at Omaha Beach for the war. Hemingway tried to get closer to the front. He joined RAF bombing missions. He was assigned to General George Patton’s third army but he disliked its showy commander and he had little interest in tank warfare. He was restless for action. Hemingway liberated a german motorcycle and drove out of sight, but he was immediately fired upon by a German anti-tank gun. He was hurled into the air and his head smashed into a rock causing yet another concussion. Enemy forces were so close he could hear their voices. He had to stay hidden until dark. Eventually he made his way to a new regiment where he became a celebrated member of the men. In one instance he tossed grenades down a flight of stairs killing S.S. soldiers. For his efforts, Hemingway was rewarded with champagne from the villagers.

He joined a group of correspondents in St. Michel who drove out to observe the war during the day only to return in the evenings to dine and drink. In August, Hemingway joined the French army as it triumphantly made way for liberating Paris. It was an emotional moment for Hemingway as he returned to his favorite city -the chosen city of his youth. Hemingway was greeted by his old friend Sylvia Beach, owner of Shakespeare & Co, and he stopped by his old hotel and watering hole, the Ritz, where he and his fellow troops were greeted with 50 martinis and dinner.

Shortly thereafter, Mary Welsh joined Hemingway in Paris. They had happy times but Hemingway was chaotic and unpredictable -he was drinking far too much. During this time, a young short story writer named Jerome David Salinger met Hemingway who was kind and hospitable. Hemingway appreciated Salinger’s short stories. One evening Hemingway was having dinner with soldiers in a farmhouse when an 88 shell smashed through one wall and out the other without exploding. The band of men fled to the cellar fearing more explosions were on the way, but Hemingway remained seated quietly at the table and continued eating. Despite international laws protecting war correspondents, Hemingway behaved mostly as a soldier. It was actually the closest he came to being a combatant, however after witnessing remarkable bloodshed and violence, he soon departed home for Cuba. The visions and images of his time with the regiment haunted him.

When he came back to Cuba, Hemingway was depressed and he drank excessively. Eventually, Mary Welsh joined him in Cuba. He encouraged her to settle down at his home. In the Spring 1946 they were married and immediately their marriage was rocky. They fought constantly. She had an ectopic pregnancy that nearly killed her. The loss meant Hemingway would never have the daughter he hoped for.

Around this time, Hemingway’s children began to develop issues: Patrick had a psychotic episode and he was administered electroshock therapy. Hemingway’s youngest, Gregory, had a secret. He took pleasure from a young age in dressing in drag. He was arrested for cross-dressing while on drugs in a woman’s restroom in Los Angeles. Pauline picked up the phone and called Ernest -the two screamed at each other for a lengthy period of time and then hung up. The strain and intensity of the situation caused a rare adrenal issue that sent Pauline to the hospital where she died. Her death caused Hemingway great strife with his children.

Around this time Hemingway’s health was starting to decline, as well. He was suffering from tinnitus, he gained weight, he may have been bipolar, and he was struggling from years of alcohol abuse. He met an 18 year old Italian girl from an old aristocratic family named Adriana Ivancich. She was well-educated and fresh out of convent school. Together they wandered through Venice and Cuba. Hemingway fell in love with her despite their extraordinary age gap (he was nearly 50 and she was 18). He also began work on a new novel, Across The River and Into The Trees, which was based on his war experiences. The story features a character based on Adriana but the reviews of the book were disastrous. Critically, the consensus was that Hemingway was finished. His golden years were long behind him. When he got back to Cuba his moods swung wildly up and down. Mary threatened to leave him but Hemingway persuaded her to stay with him. Meanwhile, when he was out fishing on the Pilar one day Hemingway lost his footing and smashed his head yet again.

Hemingway’s mind was slowly disintegrating. He was struggling to write and his relationship with Mary was collapsing into violence and anger. Adriana came to visit Hemingway in Cuba, and it provided just enough invigoration and inspiration. He began a new story, The Old Man and the Sea, the novel which cemented his legacy and won him both a Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize.

Surprisingly Mary and Ernest stayed together and went on safari in Africa. As a Christmas gift they took a plane over Uganda but disaster soon struck. The plane swerved to avoid a flock of birds and it crashed. Mary came away with two broken ribs and was knocked unconscious. Hemingway had a torn shoulder. They spent the night remotely at higher ground for fear of elephants and hyenas. A search plane flew overhead and spotted the wreckage but it failed to notice the survivors. Early news reports announced that Hemingway was dead. Meanwhile, Hemingway flagged down a passing boat that took him and Mary to the east side of Lake Albert and they attempted to catch a return flight home. They boarded a small plane but the plane’s fuel tank exploded shortly after take-off. The plane exploded into a fiery inferno. The pilot of the plane helped Mary out through a window but Hemingway was too large to fit. Instead, he bashed his head against the cockpit door again and again until it was finally battered open. He had gotten himself into two plane crashes in as many days and somehow survived. Despite his extraordinary injuries, he looked with glee at his own obituaries. Doctors confirmed that Hemingway had very nearly died. He had suffered yet another traumatic brain injury with first degree burns, a fractured vertebrae, a fractured skull, sprained legs, slurred speech, depression, hallucinations just to name a few effects. He continued to risk his life by drinking. He became impatient, short-tempered, tense, and unpleasant. He treated Mary poorly so that she threatened to leave him again and his son Patrick did leave. The two never saw each other again. Hemingway was losing his restraint.

The Hemingways eventually returned to Cuba but he was never the same. At this time he accepted the Nobel Prize (“that Swedish thing” as he called it) but he could not attend the ceremony in person due to poor health. He pre-recorded his acceptance speech and it was sent to Sweden. His physical and mental health were in significant decline. Well-wishers and visitors flocked to his home to catch a glimpse of what he called “the old elephant in the room” (a reference to himself). He did not quit drinking. His blood pressure was out of control, his anxiety rose, and he had trouble sleeping. He was on a variety of prescribed drugs.

Hemingway wrote a collection of fragments towards the end that were never finished, though they would be published posthumously. He also wrote a series of sketches reflecting on his beloved time in Paris. They eventually became A Movable Feast -a book many consider to be his final masterpiece. It was edited by his wife Mary and son, and published posthumously. In Spring 1959 the Hemingways traveled to Spain and settled in the home of an American celebrity. Hemingway was hailed as a patron saint of Spain and he became exhausted from all the traveling. When he got back to Cuba he tried to write but something had changed. He had lost his strict writing habit and he could no longer seem to create anything meaningful. He and Mary went to a home in Ketchum, Idaho. They had purchased the home in case things fell apart in Cuba.

During this time Hemingway grew fearful and acutely paranoid concerning odd theories of the FBI and stalkers. He went to the Mayo Clinic covertly (it was claimed he was being treated for high blood pressure). He registered under an assumed name and was immediately treated for his psychotic condition. However, he was welcomed as a celebrity -he was allowed to shoot guns with the doctors and they permitted him to sneak in wine. He was administered electroshock therapy. Hemingway was in severe depression and psychosis in addition to the trauma of multiple concussions that likely permanently altered his mind. He returned home and tried edit A Moveable Feast in the mornings while taking long walks in the afternoons, but he had begun to entirely lose his short-term memory perhaps as a result of the electroshock therapy. It was impossible for him to write more than a single sentence at a time. He realized that he had lost the strength of mind to continue writing. He was asked to write a tribute to the new president -John F. Kennedy- but he could only write four lines and it took him weeks. His doctor visited for a blood pressure check and found Hemingway weeping over his growing inabilities and the death of all his friends. He spoke on the telephone with his first wife Hadley one last time but he sounded distant, sad, and weary so she hung up and wept. Then with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, diplomatic relations with Cuba officially disintegrated. Hemingway had officially lost his beloved life in Cuba -his boat, his home, his cats, and his whole lifestyle. He mourned the loss of his past life.

Mary found Ernest one morning standing with a shotgun and two shells nearby. She managed to talk him down and Hemingway agreed to return to the Mayo Clinic. He underwent further electroshock treatments but his memory deteriorated even further before he was allowed to return home.

On Sunday morning July 2, 1961, Hemingway slipped down to the basement, took a shotgun, returned to the vestibule, bent over it, and pulled the trigger killing himself. He was not the first nor the last member of his family to die by suicide.

Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, contracted cancer and was nearly blind in later life. She died by suicide using a cyanide capsule in 1998. Hemingway’s first son John “Jack” Hadley Hemingway was most like his father in some ways. He was a soldier, fisherman, and conservationist. He was the only son of Ernest and Hadley. He died in 2000 of heart complications. Jack’s daughter (Ernest’s granddaughter) Margaux Hemingway was a fashion model who struggled with addiction and depression all her life. She died by drug overdose that was ruled a suicide in 1996. Her sister Mariel Hemingway was an actress (who notably appeared alongside Woody Allen in Manhattan) and who has also struggled with mental health issues. Hemingway’s second son, Patrick, was a conservationist and resides in Montana where he manages the intellectual property of his father’s estate as of the time of this writing. Hemingway’s third son, Gregory, struggled with mental illness, drug use, alcoholism, and gender dysphoria all his life. He died in 2001. At the time of his death, Gregory was in the midst of an ongoing gender reassignment surgery.


These are notes based on information presented in Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s new documentary on Ernest Hemingway for PBS.

One thought on “On the Epic Life of Ernest Hemingway

  1. Thank you for a beautifully written short but informative biography of a iconic literary figure

    Like

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