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Elaine May

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Subject: A New Leaf (film), Warren Beatty, The Heartbreak Kid (1972 film), Stanley Donen, Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Director
Collection: 1932 Births, 20Th-Century American Actresses, Actresses from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, American Film Actresses, American Film Directors, American Stage Actresses, American Women Comedians, American Women Film Directors, American Women Screenwriters, Bafta Winners (People), Film Directors from Pennsylvania, Grammy Award Winners, Jewish American Actresses, Jewish American Writers, Living People, Second City Alumni, United States National Medal of Arts Recipients, Writers from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Writers Guild of America Award Winners
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Elaine May

Elaine May
Acting on stage in 1959
Born Elaine Iva Berlin
(1932-04-21) April 21, 1932
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Other names Esther Dale
Occupation Screenwriter, film director, actress, comedian
Years active 1958–2000
Spouse(s) Marvin Irving May (1949–1960; divorced); 1 child
Sheldon Harnick (1962–63; divorced)
David L. Rubinfine (1964–82; his death)
Partner(s) Stanley Donen (1999–present)
Children Jeannie Berlin (daughter)

Elaine May (born April 21, 1932) is an American screenwriter, film director, actress and comedian. She made her initial impact in the 1950s from her improvisational comedy routines with Mike Nichols, performing as Nichols and May. After her duo with Nichols ended, May subsequently developed a career as a director and screenwriter. She has been twice nominated for an Academy Award, for Heaven Can Wait (1978) and the Nichols-directed Primary Colors (1998), but remains best known perhaps for her 1971 black comedy A New Leaf, in which she also starred. In 1996, she reunited with Nichols to write the screenplay for The Birdcage, directed by Nichols. She received the National Medal of Arts in 2012 for her contributions.[1]

After studying acting with theater coach Maria Ouspenskaya in Los Angeles, she moved to Chicago in 1955 and became a founding member of the Compass Players, an improvisational theater group. May began working alongside Nichols, who was also in the group, and together they began writing and performing their own comedy sketches, which were enormously popular. In 1957 they both quit the group to form their own stage act, Nichols and May, in New York. Jack Rollins, who produced most of Woody Allen's films, said their act was "so startling, so new, as fresh as could be. I was stunned by how really good they were."

They performed nightly to mostly sold-out shows, in addition to making various TV and radio appearances. In their comedy act, they created satirical clichés and character types which made fun of the new intellectual, cultural, and social order that was just emerging at the time. In doing so, "May cracked the stereotype of what roles a woman could play", wrote Gerald Nachman, "breaking through the psychological restrictions of playing comedy as a woman." Together, they became an inspiration to many younger comedians, including Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin. After four years, at the height of their fame, they decided to discontinue their act and took their careers in different directions, Nichols becoming a leading film director and May becoming primarily a screenwriter and playwright, along with acting and directing. Their relatively brief time together as comedy stars led New York talk show host Dick Cavett to call their act "one of the comic meteors in the sky." Nachman noted that "Nichols and May are perhaps the most ardently missed of all the satirical comedians of their era."[2]:319


  • Early years and personal life 1
  • Stage career 2
    • The Compass Players 2.1
    • Nichols and May comedy team 2.2
    • Technique 2.3
    • Influence on other comedians 2.4
    • Team break-up 2.5
    • Playwriting 2.6
  • Film career 3
    • Directing 3.1
    • Writing 3.2
    • Acting 3.3
  • Filmography 4
    • Films as writer 4.1
    • Films as writer and director 4.2
    • Films as director only 4.3
    • Films as actress 4.4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Early years and personal life

May was born Elaine Iva Berlin in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1932, the daughter of Jewish parents, theater director/actor Jack Berlin and actress Ida (Aaron) Berlin.[3]:39[4] As a child, Elaine performed with her father in his traveling Yiddish theater company, which he took around the country. Her stage debut on the road was at the age of three, and she eventually played the character of a generic little boy named Benny.[5]

Because the troupe toured extensively, May had been in over 50 different schools by the time she was ten, having spent as little as a few weeks enrolled at any one time. May says she hated school and would spend her free time at home reading fairy tales and mythology.[2]:331 Her father died when she was 11 years old, and then she and her mother moved to Los Angeles, where May later enrolled in Hollywood High School. She dropped out when she was fourteen years old. Two years later, aged sixteen, she married Marvin May, an engineer and toy inventor. They had one child, Jeannie Berlin (born 1949), who became an actress and screenwriter. May and Berlin divorced years later, and she married lyricist Sheldon Harnick in 1962; they divorced a year later. May married, lastly, her psychoanalyst, Dr. David L. Rubinfine; they remained married until his death in 1982.[2]:332

May's current longtime companion is director Stanley Donen, whom she has dated since 1999.[6] Donen claims to have proposed marriage "about 172 times."[7]

Stage career

After her divorce from Marvin May, she studied acting with former Moscow Art Theatre coach Maria Ouspenskaya. She also held odd jobs during that period and tried to enroll in college. She learned, however, that colleges in California require a high school diploma to apply, which she didn't have.[3]:39 After finding out that the University of Chicago was one of the few colleges that would accept students without diplomas, she set out with $7 to her name and hitchhiked to Chicago.[5]

Soon after moving to Chicago in 1950, May began informally taking classes at the university by sitting in without enrolling. She nevertheless sometimes engaged in discussions with instructors. Mike Nichols, who was then an actor in the school’s theatrical group, remembers her coming to his philosophy class, saying "something outrageous" and leaving.[2]:324

They learned of each other from friends, eventually being introduced after one of his stage shows. Six weeks later, they bumped into each other at a train station in Chicago. "We had instant rapport,” remembers Nichols. They began spending time together over the following weeks as “dead broke theatre junkies.”[2]:324–325

The Compass Players

In 1955, May joined a new, off-campus improvisational theater group, The Compass Players, becoming one of its charter members. The group was founded by Paul Sills and David Shepherd. Nichols later joined the group, wherein he resumed his friendship with May. At first he was unable to improvise well on stage, thinking, “I can’t do this at all.” Then Nichols and May began developing improvised comedy sketches together, which "sparked his latent gift."[2]:333 Nichols himself remembers this period:

From then on it became mostly pleasure because of Elaine’s generosity. The fact of Elaine—her presence—kept me going. She was the only one who had faith in me. I loved it... We had a similar sense of humor and irony... When I was with her I became something more than I had been before.[2]:333

Actress Geraldine Page says, “They clanked together with great efficiency. Like a juggernaut.”[2]:336 Thanks in part to Nichols and May, writes Amy Seham, the Compass Players became an enormously popular satirical comedy troupe. Seham adds that "they codified techniques for adapting the freedom of the workshop to the pressures of the stage.”[8]

May became prominent as a member of the Compass's acting group, a quality others in the group observed. Bobbi Gordon, an actor, remembers that she was often the center of attention: “The first time I met her was at Compass... Elaine was this grande dame of letters. With people sitting around her feet, staring up at her, open-mouthed in awe, waiting for “The Word.”[2]:330–331 A similar impression struck Compass actor Bob Smith:

May would hold court, discussing her days as a child actor in the Yiddish theater, as men hung on her every word. Every guy who knew her was in love with her. You’d have been stupid not to have been.[2]:329

As an integral member of their group, May "gave novices a chance," claims actress Nancy Ponder, including the hiring of a black actor and generally making the group “more democratic.” Ponder adds, “She was the strongest woman I ever met.” She took "creative leaps," writes Nachman, “that improved everyone’s work.”[2]:330

May, Nichols and Dorothy Loudon, 1959

But in giving all her attention to acting, however, she neglected her home life. Fellow actress Barbara Harris recalls that May lived in a cellar with only one piece of furniture, a ping-pong table. “She wore basic beatnik black and, like her film characters, was a brilliant disheveled klutz.”[2]:330

Some members of the group, including Nichols, found her to be physically attractive, which could be distracting. Group actor Omar Shapli was “struck by her piercing, dark-eyed, sultry stare. It was really unnerving,” he says.[2]:329 Nichols remembers that as a result of her attractiveness, “everybody wanted Elaine, and the people who got her couldn't keep her.” Theater critic John Lahr agrees, noting that “her juicy good looks were a particularly disconcerting contrast to her sharp tongue."[2]:329

May’s sense of humor, including what she found funny about everyday life, was different from others' in the group. Novelist Herbert Gold, who dated May, says that “she treated everything funny that men take seriously... She was never serious. Her life was a narrative.”[2]:329 Another ex-boyfriend, James Sacks, says that “Elaine had a genuine beautiful madness.” Nevertheless, states Gold, “she was very cute, a lot like Debra Winger, just a pretty Jewish girl.”[2]:329

Her high intelligence is also remembered by some in the group. "She’s about fifty percent more brilliant than she needs to be," says actor Eugene Troobnick. Those outside their theater group sometimes noticed that same quality. British actor Richard Burton, then married to Elizabeth Taylor, met May while he was starring in Camelot on Broadway and would later say, “Elaine was too formidable, one of the most intelligent, beautiful, and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.”[2]:331

Nichols and May comedy team

Nichols and May, 1960

Nichols was personally asked to leave Compass Players in 1957 because he and May "were so good, they eventually threw the company off balance," wrote club manager Jay Landsman. Nichols was told he had "too much talent."[2]:338 Nichols left the group, with May quitting with him, in 1957. They then formed their own stand-up comedy team, which they called Nichols and May. After making a number of contacts with agents in New York, they were invited to audition for Jack Rollins, who would later become Woody Allen's manager and executive producer. Rollins was "stunned" by how good their act was:

Their work was so startling, so new, as fresh as could be. I was stunned by how really good they were, actually as impressed by their acting technique as by their comedy... They were totally adventurous and totally innocent, in a certain sense. That’s why it was accepted. They would uncover little dark niches that you felt but had never expressed... I’d never seen this technique before. I thought, My God, these are two people writing hilarious comedy on their feet![2]:340

By 1960, they would make their Broadway debut with An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which later won a Grammy. After performing their act a number of years in New York's various clubs, and then on Broadway, with most of the shows sold out, Nichols could not believe their success:

We were winging it, making it up as we went along. It never even crossed our minds that it had any value beyond the moment. It was great to study and learn and work there. We were stunned when we got to New York... Never for a moment did we consider that we would do this for a living. It was just a handy way to make some money until we grew up.[2]:333

His feelings were shared by May, who was also taken aback by their success, especially having some real income after living a near-poverty lifestyle. She told a Newsweek interviewer, "When we came to New York, we were practically barefoot. And I still can’t get used to walking in high heels."[2]:343

Their “instant success” in New York was due to their unique act, which some saw as “the next big thing.” Charles H. Joffe, their producer, remembers that at one show, the line went around the block, and Milton Berle himself tried three times, without success, to see their act.[2]:341 Critic Lawrence Christon, after seeing them perform, remembers how he felt: "You just knew it was a defining moment. They caught the urban tempo, like Woody Allen did."[2]:343

They continued to perform nightly to mostly sold-out shows, in addition to making various TV and radio appearances, including doing TV commercials.[2]:346


Theater program from 1961

Among the qualities of their act, which according to one writer made them “the rarest of comedians," was that they used both "snob and mob appeal," giving them a wide audience. Nachman explains that "their partnership was a new kind of comedy team, nothing at all like the traditional duos—Laurel & Hardy, Fibber McGee & Molly, Burns and Allen, Abbott & Costello, Martin and Lewis—with a smart one and a stupid one."[2]:322

What differentiated their style, according to Nachman, was the fact that they did mostly "scenes," a method very unlike the styles of other acting teams. Many of the other comedy duos added singing, drama, malapropisms or shtick. Nor did Nichols and May rely on fixed gender or comic roles, but instead adapted their own character to fit a sketch idea they came up with. In doing so, they chose real-life subjects, often from their own life, which were "deliciously satirical, often hilarious vignettes that commented on life around them."[2]:322

They accomplished this by using subtle joke references, expecting the audience to recognize clichés and character types. "Most of what Nichols and May did was to make fun of the new intellectual, cultural, and social order that was just emerging at the time, writes Nachman. Young Americans' behavior became their subject, seeing how they took themselves too seriously. As a result, "Nichols and May merged comedy and reality and helped shape their generation’s satirical sensibility."[2]:321

Nichols structured the material for their skits, and May came up with most of their ideas.[5] Improvisation became a fairly simple art for them, as they portrayed the urban couple's "Age of Anxiety" in their sketches, and did so on their feet. According to May, it was simple:

It's nothing more than quickly creating a situation between two people and throwing up some kind of problem for one of them.[5]

Nichols notes that after coming up with a sketch idea, they would perform it soon after with little extra rehearsal or writing it down. He gives an example of one sketch idea that came easily because "we both had extremely difficult Jewish mothers”:

There was the time my mother called me and said, “Hello, Michael, this is your mother—do you remember me?” and I said, “Mother, let me call you right back,” and I called Elaine and I said, “I’ve got a really good piece for us tonight.” And I gave her that line and we did the piece that night exactly as it exists now.[2]:335

From that single idea, they created a six-minute-long, mostly improvised, "mother and son" sketch, with a mother berating her rocket-scientist son for not calling her enough. For example, Nichols apologizing, "I feel awful," with his mother replying, "If I could believe that, I'd be the happiest mother in the world."[9][10]

"May cracked the stereotype of what roles a woman could play," states Nachman. And producer David Shepherd notes that she accomplished this partly by not choosing traditional female roles for her character, at least by the standards of the 1950s. Instead, she played characters of "challenging, sophisticated and worldly women." Those might include the woman as a doctor, a psychiatrist, or an employer,” although none resembled feminist roles.[2]:337 Shepherd concludes that "Elaine broke through the psychological restrictions of playing comedy as a woman."[2]:322

Nichols and May did have different attitudes toward their improvisations, however. Where Nichols always needed to know where a sketch was going and what its ultimate point would be, May preferred exploring ideas as the scene progressed. May says that even when they repeated their improvisations, "it’s not by rote, but by re-creation of the original impulse," and that she liked to make slight changes during a performance.[5] This difference in technique is explained by May having a wider range than Nichols, with freer improvisational skills. Nichols would shape the pieces and steer them to their end, and for their records, he knew what to delete.[2]:323

Influence on other comedians

Nichols and May created a new "Age of Irony" for comedy, which includes actors "batting contemporary banalities back and forth" as a key part of their routine. That style of comedy was picked up and further developed by other comics, including Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and David Letterman.[2]:323

Steve Martin notes that Nichols and May satirized "a new thing then, which was 'relationships.' The word came into being in the early sixties. Now we can’t get rid of the word, but it was the first time I ever heard it satirized.”[2]:323 He recalls that soon after discovering their recorded acts, he “went to sleep at night listening to these records for weeks, for months... They influenced us all and changed the face of comedy.”[2]:324

Lily Tomlin was also affected by their routines and considers May to be her inspiration as a comedian: "There was nothing like Elaine May, with her voice, her timing and her attitude," says Tomlin.[11] She adds:

The nuances of the characterizations and the cultured types that they were doing completely appealed to me. They were the first people I saw doing smart, hip character pieces. My brother and I used to keep their "Improvisations to Music" on the turntable twenty-four hours a day.[2]:324

Team break-up

Audiences were still discovering them in 1961, four years after they arrived. However, at the height of their fame, they decided to discontinue their act that year and took their careers in different directions, Nichols becoming a leading film director and May becoming primarily a screenwriter and playwright, with some acting and directing. Among the reasons they decided to call it quits was that keeping their act fresh was becoming more difficult. Nichols explains:

Several things happened. One was that I, more than Elaine, became more and more afraid of our improvisational material. She was always brave. We never wrote a skit, we just sort of outlined it: I’ll try to make you, or we’ll fight—whatever it was. We found ourselves doing the same material over and over, especially in our Broadway show. This took a great toll on Elaine.[2]:349

Nichols said that for him personally the breakup was "cataclysmic," and he went into a state of depression. "I didn't know what I was or who I was,” he adds. It was not until thirty-five years later that they would work together again as a team, when he directed The Birdcage in 1996, with May writing the screenplay. Nichols recalls that working with her again "was like coming home, like getting a piece of yourself back that you thought you’d lost."[2]:353

Looking back on their earlier years, Nichols says that "Elaine was very important to me from the moment I saw her."[2]:325 He adds that for May, "Improv was innate. There are very few people who have the gift of Elaine."[2]:359

Director Arthur Penn said of their sudden breakup, "They set the standard and then they had to move on."[2]:351 To New York talk show host Dick Cavett, "They were one of the comic meteors in the sky."[2]:348 Nachman tries to summarize the effect of their break-up on American comedy:

Nichols and May are perhaps the most ardently missed of all the satirical comedians of their era. When Nichols and May split up, they left no imitators, no descendants, no blueprints or footprints to follow. No one could touch them.[2]:319


Following the break-up, May wrote several plays. Her greatest success was the one-act Adaptation. Other stage plays she has written include Not Enough Rope, Mr Gogol And Mr Preen, Hotline (which was performed off-Broadway in 1995 as part of the anthology play Death Defying Acts), After the Night and the Music, Power Plays, Taller Than A Dwarf, The Way of All Fish, and Adult Entertainment. In 1969 she directed the off-Broadway production of Adaptation/Next.

In 2002 Stanley Donen directed her musical play Adult Entertainment starring Danny Aiello and Jeannie Berlin in Stamford, Connecticut.[12]

May wrote the one-act play George is Dead, which starred Marlo Thomas and was performed on Broadway from 2011 to 2012 as part of the anthology play Relatively Speaking, directed by John Turturro.[13]

Film career


May made her film writing and directing debut in 1971 with A New Leaf, a sophisticated, now-cult black comedy based on Jack Ritchie's The Green Heart. (Ritchie would later retitle the story A New Leaf.) The unconventional 'romance' starred Walter Matthau and May as a Manhattan bachelor faced with bankruptcy and the wealthy but nerdy botanist he targets to in order to salvage his extravagant lifestyle. Director May originally submitted an ambitious 180-minute work to Parmount, but the studio cut it back by nearly 80 minutes for release.

Her second directorial effort was 1972's The Heartbreak Kid. This comedy, based on a screenplay by Neil Simon, and starring Charles Grodin, Cybill Shepherd, Eddie Albert and May's own daughter, Jeannie Berlin, was critically lauded and modestly popular. Albert and Berlin each received Supporting Actor/Actress Oscar nominations for the film. May followed up these two comedies with the bleak crime drama entitled Mikey and Nicky, starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. Budgeted at $1.8 million and scheduled for a summer 1975 release, the film ended up costing $4.3 million and not coming out until December 1976.

She was eventually fired by Paramount Pictures (the studio which financed the film), but succeeded in getting herself rehired by hiding two reels of the negative until the studio gave in. The film's subsequent failure at the box office damaged her career in Hollywood until Warren Beatty decided to give her one more chance. Their collaboration, Ishtar (1987), starring Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, was an even more notorious disaster. Largely shot on location in Morocco, the production was beset by creative differences among the principals and enormous cost overruns. The advance publicity was largely negative, and despite some positive reviews[14] from The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, the film was one of the biggest cinematic disasters of all time. Since that time, May has not directed another film.


Elaine May received an Oscar nomination for updating the 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan as Heaven Can Wait (1978). May reunited with her former comic partner, Mike Nichols, for The Birdcage in 1996. The film relocated the classic French farce La Cage aux Folles from France to South Beach, Miami. May received her second Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay when she again worked with Nichols on Primary Colors in 1997. She was one of several writers, none of whom were given credit for contributing to the screenplay, for the 1982 megahit Tootsie, notably the scenes involving the character played by Bill Murray.

In December 2013 it was announced that Stanley Donen was in pre-production for a new film co-written with May, to be produced by Mike Nichols. A table reading of the script for potential investors included such actors as Christopher Walken, Charles Grodin, Ron Rifkin and Jeannie Berlin.[15]


May has also acted in comedy films, including Enter Laughing (1967), directed by Carl Reiner, and Luv (1967), costarring Peter Falk and Jack Lemmon. The latter film was not well received by critics, although Lemmon said he enjoyed working alongside May: "She's the finest actress I've ever worked with," he said. "And I've never expressed an opinion about a leading lady before... I think Elaine is touched with genius. She approaches a scene like a director and a writer."[16]

Film scholar Gwendolyn Audrey Foster notes that May is drawn to material that borders on dry Yiddish humor. As such, it has not always been well received at the box office. Her style of humor, in writing or acting, often has more to do with traditional Yiddish theater than traditional Hollywood cinema.[17]

A New Leaf (1971), which she also wrote and directed, was a dark comedy co-starring Walter Matthau. Vincent Canby called it "a beautifully and gently cockeyed movie that recalls at least two different traditions of American film comedy... The entire project is touched by a fine and knowing madness."[18] May received a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of botanist Henrietta Lowell. In Herbert Ross's California Suite (1978), written by Neil Simon, she was reunited with A New Leaf co-star Walter Matthau, playing his wife Millie.[19]

In In the Spirit (1990), which she did not direct, she played a shopaholic stripped of consumer power. According to one critic, May's "study of fraying equanimity is a classic comic tour de force."[20] Her last role as a film actress was in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (2000). She played the character May Sloane, which Allen named after May when he wrote it, and with May being his first choice for the part.[21] For her acting she won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actress. Allen also spoke well of his experience working with her:

She shows up on time, she knows her lines, she can ad-lib creatively and is willing to. If you don't want her to, she won't. She's a dream. She puts herself in your hands. She's a genius, and I don't use that word casually.[21]


Films as writer

Films as writer and director

Films as director only

Films as actress


  1. ^ "President Obama to Award 2012 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal",; July 3, 2013; accessed February 11, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap  
  3. ^ a b Quart, Barbara. Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema, Greenwood Publishing (1988)
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d e Thompson, Thomas. “What Ever Happened to Elaine May?”, Life Magazine, July 28, 1967.
  6. ^ "Like his films, Donen exudes style and wit". Boston Globe. April 10, 2009. Retrieved December 28, 2011. 
  7. ^ "Out to Lunch with Stanley Donen". Vanity Fair. February 22, 2013. Retrieved March 3, 2013. 
  8. ^ Seham, Amy E. Whose Improv Is It Anyway?: Beyond Second City, Univ. Press of Mississippi (2001) pp. 14–16
  9. ^ video clip: "Nichols & May classic 'Mother and Son' skit"
  10. ^ Carter, Graydon. Vanity Fair's Tales of Hollywood: Rebels, Reds, and Graduates, Penguin (2008) p. 169
  11. ^ Lavin, Suzanne. Women and Comedy in Solo Performance, Routledge (2004) p. 40
  12. ^ "THEATER REVIEW; Is She a Serious Actress? XXXtremely". The New York Times. December 12, 2002. Retrieved December 28, 2011. 
  13. ^ Isherwood, Charles (2011-10-20), "Each Family, Tortured in Its Own Way", New York Times 
  14. ^ "Ishtar". Metacritic. 
  15. ^ "Stanley Donen gearing up to direct his first feature in 30 years". December 3, 2013. Retrieved December 14, 2013. 
  16. ^ Thompson, Thomas. "What Happened to Elaine May?: Since She and Mike Nichols Broke Up Their Famous Comedy Team, She has had Flops, Problems and Now, at Last, a New Success," Life magazine, July 28, 1967, p. 54
  17. ^ Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Dictionary, Greenwood Publishing (1995) p. 246
  18. ^ Canby, Vincent, "A New Leaf (1971): Love Turns 'New Leaf' at Music Hall", The New York Times, March 12, 1971. Retrieved 2011-01-02.
  19. ^ California Suite
  20. ^ "Elaine May Biography", Film Director's Site
  21. ^ a b Lax, Eric. Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking, Knopf Doubleday Publishing (2007) p. 161

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