Disclosure: This story includes talk of suicide, mental health issues, and domestic abuse. If any of these subjects are a trigger for you, please take care of yourself, and check out some of my other stories!
I have always had a love of vintage Hollywood movies, beginning with the queen… Miss Marilyn Monroe, but this story is not about her. This story is about the iconic Lana Turner. I did not know who Lana really was until I researched her life. I came across her while watching American Horror Story: Asylum. When the fictional Lana Winters meets Jessica Lange’s Sister Jude, she makes a comment “After the actress? Now that’s train wreck of a soul”. This got my brain thinking. Who was Lana? That is when I found Lana Turner. Lana was born and raised in Idaho. Through the ashes of her tragic life, arose a legendary actress who had a career spanning almost 5 decades. This is her story…
Mildred Frances Cowan, who was of Irish, Scottish, English descent, was the daughter of a mine inspector. When Mildred was 14, she was visiting Picher, Oklahoma while her dad was inspecting mines in Picher. She met John Virgil Turner, who was 24 years old. Mildred’s father was against the relationship due to fact that his daughter 14. The couple shortly eloped and settled in Idaho. Three year later, when Mildred was 3 days short of 17, she gave birth their daughter, Julia Jean Turner.
Julia was born on February 8, 1921, in Wallace, Idaho, at Providence. She later used the name Lana, as her stage name. To avoid confusion, I will use that name to address her. At the time of Lana’s birth, the family lived in Burke, Idaho. The family later moved to the town of Wallace in 1925. Wallace was a small mining town in the Idaho Panhandle, located in Northern Idaho. While, in Wallace, John opened a dry cleaning business and worked in the silver mines. At a young age, Lana started going by Judy and performed dance routines at John’s Elk Chapter. Elks is a lodge group that involves family, including women. In 1924, at the age of 3, Mildred was in a fashion show for charity, and Lana performed an spontaneous dance routine.
When Lana was 6, around 1927, the family moved to San Francisco, due to financial struggles. Shortly after the move, John and Mildred separated. John had a gambling problem, so I am thinking that was the reason for the separation. Lana later said that he would go by different surnames, to where Lana would confused on her last name. Due to the separation, Mildred started working as a beautician, for sometimes 80 hours a week, to make ends meet. Mildred told Lana that John could not work, so in the mean time, she will have to work and Lana will need to stay at friends, called the Hislops, in Modesto, but that she would see her often. Money caused Lana to stay with friends. Many thought that Julia did not want Lana to be in middle of the separation, because Mildred had hope for reconciliation.
On December 14, 1930, John played a game of craps and won a good deal of money. The hid the money in his left sock and headed home. He was later found dead, bludgeoned to death, on the corner of Minnesota and Mariposa in Butcher District. He was slumped against a wall and his coat pulled over his head and his left shoe and sock was removed and the money was taken. This case is still unsolved to this day. Mildred told Lana that she wanted her to visit her in San Francisco and Lana just knew something happened. This was a heartbreaking loss for Lana, as one could imagine, and probably shaped her life and led to her troubles, later in life.
While living with the Hislops, Lana attended Mass, and at 7, with the approval of her mother, converted to Roman Catholicism. At one point, Lana attended Convent of the Immaculate Conception, and seriously thought about becoming a nun.
However, things at the Hislops soon became turbulent. Mildred noticed that Lana had bruises all over her body, and when she asked her daughter about the marks, she found out the Hislops’ daughter, Julia, became violent and beat Lana up. Between the attack and finding out that the family was treating Lana like a servant, Mildred decided she needed to find a new place for her daughter to stay. Lana then stayed for a family named the Meadows. This time was difficult for the mother and daughter, they struggled to make money last; sometimes they lived on crackers and milk. 1m 1936, Mildred developed a respiratory condition, and moved Lana and herself to Los Angeles, after recommended by her doctor to move to a drier climate.
A Chance Meeting Leads to Lana’s Discovery
In 1936, the 15 year old Lana skipped her typing class to go to the local malt shop, Top Hat Malt Shop. While sipping on a coke, by a soda fountain, William R. Wilkerson, publisher of the Hollywood Reporter discovered Lana. William had the manager of the malt shop, who knew Lana well, tell her that he wanted to talk. She told the manager sure but to stay close by. William then asked Lana if she would to be in movies and she said that she had to talk to her mother about it before answering.
Mildred gave her blessing and William referred Lana to Zeppo Marx, who was an actor, comedian, and talent agent that ,in turn, introduced her to Film Director Mervyn LeRoy in December 1936. Mervyn Signed Lana to a contract with Warner Bros in February 1937, for 50 dollars a week (about 1,060 dollars in today’s money). Mervyn become sort of a mentor of Lana and it was because if his urging that she change her name from Julia, and she picked Lana.
Later in 1937, she made her film debut, in They Won’t Forget, as a teenage murder victim and had a small role. William wrote a review and had nothing but glowing compliments for Lana. He said that she deserved more than just a bit part. Lana later said that she had a hard time watching herself on screen, because she became very aware of how she walked. She also recalled disliking her nickname “sweater girl”, named after wearing a form fitting sweater in the movie. That same year, she had another bit part, playing an actress pretending to be a chambermaid. The film was a biopic about actor David Garrick, called “The Great Garrick“.
Mervyn, hired at MGM Studios, as an executive, asked Jack L. Warner of Warner Brothers to bring Lana with him. Jack agreed because he felt that Lana was not going to amount to anything. Lana left and signed a contract for 100 dollars a week ($2,120 in today’s time). In 1938, MGM lent Lana to United Artists for a small role in Adventures of Marco Polo, as a maid. Her first starring role planned to be alongside Clark Gable, in a film called The Sea wolf. However, MGM shelved the movie.
Her first big role happened that same year, in Love Finds Andy Hardy. The film also starred the legendary Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Lana was able to finish high school on set, in between shooting scenes for the film. Her performance in the film, convinced MGM studio head, Louis B. Meyer, that she was the next Jean Harlow. That same year, Lana starred in Rich Man, Poor Girl and Dramatic School.
In 1939, Lana career really started to pick up as she starred in numerous films, such as Calling Dr. Kildare, These Glamour Girls, and Dancing Co-ed. Dancing Co-ed led to Lana’ being’s establishment as a sex symbol. She even got her first cover magazine for Look Magazine.
Lana started to date around 1938, when she was 17, and her first boyfriend was Greg Bautzer. Greg was 27 at the time, But this did not last long, since he was a known player. In 1940, Lana briefly dated Artie Shaw, who appeared with her in Dancing Co-ed. They eloped after their first dated, but he marriage only lasted four months, not surprisingly. Executives started to worry about Lana’s behavior, due to the high publicity of her brief marriage. Shortly after Lana divorced Artie, rumors started about a hospitalization for exhaustion. In reality, Lana decided to obtain getting an abortion. Lana later said that Artie treated her like a dumb blonde.
Rise to Stardom and Motherhood
When the 1940s, began, so did Lana’s musical career. Lana starred in Two Girls in Broadway, in 1940, and received top billing. The film was a remake of the the Broadway musical The Broadway Melody. In 1942, She starred alongside Judy Garland and James Stewart, in her second musical called the Ziegfeld Girl. She portrayed an actress named Sheila Regan who had an alcohol problem. Sheila was based on real life actress Lillian Lorraine. This movie is the project that Lana felt sparked her passion for acting. MGM saw her performance as one of the best in the industry. Her salary increased to 1,500 dollars (31, 375 in today’s money). They gave her a trailer and makeup artist. After making the movie, Lana and Judy Garland became lifelong friends and even lived near each other in the 1950’s.
In 1941, Lana played an ingenue in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which starred Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. I got the impression that Lana’s involvement surprised people, since she has not acted in horror films before. The same year, Lana starred in her first film opposite Clark Gable, a western called Honky Tonk. Rumors of romance between Lana and Clark led the film’s success. In 1942, Lana and Clark starred in Somewhere I’ll Find You, causing rumors to ignite again. Filming postponed when Clark’s wife, actress Carole Lombard, tragically died in a plane crash. Lana denied all rumors, stating that although she adores Clark, it is all friendship. In 1941, Lana played a socialite, in a mobster film, called Johnny Eager.
As the United States began their involvement in World War II, she became a pin up favorite for U.S. fighter planes. Depiction of Lana adorned on the noses of the planes, with the nickname “Tempest Turner”. In 1942, Lana and Clark started a war bond tour that lasted ten weeks. Lana began selling kisses for bonds at the Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, Oregon. She arrived to Wallace, Idaho, greeted by a warm homecoming. There was a holiday in her honor and signs that read things, such as “Welcome Home, Lana”. During the tour, Lana sold 5.25 million dollars in bonds, which would equal over 100 million today, so very impressive. Lana visited various military bases throughout the war, but has said that visiting the hospitals of injured soldiers was very difficult.
In July of 1942, Lana met Joseph Stevenson Crane, or Steve, a restaurant entrepreneur, at a dinner party. Lana and Steve started to date soon after meeting and eloped a week later. Four months later, she found out that his prior marriage had not been finalized. She annuled their marriage. In November, Lana found out that she was pregnant. In March of 1943, They re-married in Tijuana, presumably after he finalized his divorce. Early on in Lana’s pregnancy, she filmed Marriage is a Private Affair, a war comedy. She played a new mother who struggles to adjust from a carefree life to motherhood. The film later released in 1944.
She decided that she wanted a few children, but while pregnant, she found that she had Rh-negative blood. The disorder caused fetal anemia and would make it difficult to carry babies. Doctors urged Lana to avoid complications that could hurt her, to have a therapeutic abortion, but she managed to carry her baby to term. On July 25, 1943, Lana gave birth to daughter that she named Cheryl Christina Crane. Cheryl was born with Erythroblastosis Fetalis, due to Lana’s blood condition and it almost killed Cheryl, but she survived.
After news spread of Lana’s remarriage, MGM wanted to make her more of a sex symbol so they casted her as a woman who fakes being the long-lost daughter of a millionaire in Slightly Dangerous. In August off 1944, Lana divorced Steve, due to his constant gambling and lack of employment. Lana supported Franklin L. Roosevelt’s 1944 re-election. At the end of the war, Lana starred in her hit movie Week-End at the Waldorf. The movie depicted a slight remake of the 1932 film Grand Hotel. She played a stenographer, originated by the legendary Joan Crawford. The film became a box office hit.
Transformation to Dramatic Roles
Lana Decided that she wanted to become a more serious actress. She no longer wanted fame for just her looks. She wanted people to see her for her acting skills. This lead her to filming The Postman Always Rings Twice, with John Garfield, in 1946. The film noir was based on the novel by John M. Cain, where she played the wife of a roadside diner owner, who becomes romantically involved with a drifter and they plot to murder her husband. This was a turning point in her career as a serious actress and her first as a femme fatale, which is basically an attractive woman who causes diaster to a man’s life, like murder. The movie was such as success and the reviews were so goods that the studio finally listened to her about doing more serious, dramatic roles.
Based on the success of The Postman Always Rings Twice, producer Carey Wilson, insisted on Lana replacing Katharine Hepburn in the movie Green Dolphin Street. Premiering in 1947, she played a wealthy patriarch who became interested in her sister’s beau. She also changed her look quite a bit, darkening her hair and losing 15 pounds. It was the first role that did not center around her looks.
During filming, Lana had a brief affair with actor Tyrone Power. She considered Tyrone the love of her life and even became pregnant, but decided on having am abortion, probably due to health reasons. She also had affairs with Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes in 1946. In 1947, Lana reunited with Clark Gable in Homecoming. At this point, sitting at the highest point her career and even the highest paid female actors in the United States, making 226,000 dollars yearly, over 3 million in today’s time. At the end of 1947, Lana would starred in her first Technicolor film, The Three Musketeers, as Lady de Winter. She seemed to be on top of the movie career, but things would soon take a bad turn.
Downfall of an Icon
Around the time of The Three Musketeers‘ release, Lana started to date Henry J. Topping Jr. Henry went by Bob for some reason and was the grandson Daniel G, Reid, a tin plate mogul, and brother of Dan topping, New York Yankees owner. In April 1948, Lana married Bob, after her proposed to her by putting a ring in a martini glass, at the 21 club, in New York, and previously a speakeasy during the prohibition. She did not love him, but Bob persuaded her to marry him. He told Lana that she would grow to love him. She called this wedding her first normal wedding, with a white dress and friends and friends, instead of eloping.
The wedding interfered with the schedule of The Three Musketeers, making Lana three days late for filming. Louis B. Meyer, MGM studio head, was furious and wanted to suspend her contract but she not only convinced him to expand her role, due to her being a box-office draw, but also convinced them in increase her pay to 5,000 dollars a week (63,418 in 2023). The movie was a success, but after production finished, Lana’s contract was suspended temporarily. Shortly after the movie was released, Lana found out she was pregnant but sadly the baby was stillborn.
The following year, in 1949, Lana starred in A Life of Her Own, about a woman who aspires to become a model. Released in 1950, essentially a bomb. Lana called the script junk, but she wanted to be back on screen. She did not want the audience to forget her. On May 24, 1950, Lana put her hand prints in cement at Gruman’s Chinese Theater.
After the box office failure of A Life of Her Own, MGM tried to rebrand Lana by casting her in musicals. This was ultimately unsuccessful and the beginning of Lana’s downfall. In 1951, She starred in the musical Mr. Imperium, where she portrayed an American woman who was wooed by an Italian man. The movie plopped and got very bad reviews, specifically about Lana’s performance. Lana even said in an interview that the script was horrible but she was unable to get out of it. Women really did not have the control they have now, in what roles they can take.
Following the movie’s bad reception, Lana’s finances became a struggle and was dealing with the knowledge that she most likely will have to file for bankruptcy. She started to struggle with depression over her career and financial issues. In September of 1951, Lana’s manager, Benton Cole, felt like something was wrong an decided to checking on her. Upon trying to open her bathroom door, he realized it was locked, therefore he kicked the door. He saw that Lana slit her wrists and he called emergency services; all of his actions saved her life.
Shortly after, Lana met actor Fernando Lamas and started to film their musical Merry Widow, which was released in 1952. They started a relationship and she seemed to be doing better. That was until actor Lex Barker meant Lana at her home and Fernando began to get jealous and ended up physically abusing Lana. When MGM found out about the abuse, they released him from his contract, when the production completed. The movie was a success, but still received bad reviews.
Lana’s next movie starred alongside Kirk Douglas in The Bad and Beautiful, where she played an actress with a drinking problem. Released in in 1952, the movie was critically and commercially successful. In the summer of 1952, while at a party hosted by Marion Davies, she met lex Barker and started to see him shortly after, while separated from Bob. She divorced Bob Topping due to his drinking and gambling issues, in December. I assume they were officially separated at the time. In 1953, She starred in Latin Lovers, which originally was supposed to be opposite Fernando, but when he got released, he was replaced by Ricardo Montalban.
In the spring of 1953, Lana moved to Europe for 18 months, for a tax cedit that was given to film productions that filmed overseas. In this time, She filmed two films; the first was Flame of the Flesh, released in 1954, where she played a woman who manipulated a musician. The Second, Betrayed, was her last movie with Clark Gable, and it was set in the Netherlands, when it was occupied by Nazis.
When Lana returned to the United States, she married her fourth husband Lex Barker. 1955, Lana reluctantly starred in The Prodigal,a biblical film. The movie lost a lot of money and Lana did not want to film it. She thought the movie was stupid and detested her co-star Edmund Purdom, who she thought was full of himself. New MGM head Dore Schary regretted backing and pushing Lana into the film. A month later, Lana starred opposite John Wayne, The Sea Chase, where she played femme fatale spy abroad a ship, and was very successful.
In the same year, she filmed Diane, where she portrayed French Noblewoman Diane de Poitiers, and was released the following year in 1956. After finishing Diane, She began filming The Rains of Ranchipur, a remake of 1939’s The Rain Came. Unfortunately both of these films were failures and MGM decided not renew Lana’s contract, in 1956. She was hopeful that this could help her get better roles, that she had to beg for scraps, now she can fight for a better contract with a better company.
In the same year, Lana found out that she was pregnant with Lex’s baby, but gave birth to a still born baby at seven months. They started off good but soon he became unfaithful to Lana. The final nail in the coffin of their relationship, when Lana’s daughter Cheryl, told her mother that he was molested her for years. As soon as she knew, Lana kicked him out by gunpoint. In July of 1957, Lana filed for divorce.
Weeks after Lana and Lex got divorced, she filmed Peyton Place, with 20th Century fox, and played an New England mother, named Constance MacKenzie, trying to maintain a relationship with her teen daughter. Upon agreeing to make the movie, she agree to take a cut of earnings rather than a salary. This was smart because the movie was very successful. She was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress.
In January 1958, while filming The Lady Takes A Flyer, where she plays a pilot, Lana kept receiving cards and flowers from a “John Steele”. She began dating John and shortly fell in love with him. However, She found out that it was all a lie, when a friend told her that John was actually mobster Johnny Stompanato. Lana confronted Johnny and he confessed that he did not tell her the truth, because he was afraid she would not date him. She tried to break up with him, but she could not shake him. He became very abusive and threatened that if she left him, he would hurt her mother and daughter. She later said that he drugged her and took photographs as blackmail. He began to follow her everywhere and became very controlling.
In September 1957, in London, England, Johnny visited her on the set of Another Time, Another Place, costarring Sean Connery. The visit went from happy to the couple fighting, when he became paranoid that she did not want him on set; probably because she did not want him to embarrass him. In one of the fights, he tried to choke Lana. Her makeup artist, Del Armstrong, convinced Lana that they need to call the Scotland Yard to deport him. This backfired, however, and he showed up to the set with a gun, and threatened Lana and Sean Connery with the gun. Sean Connery twisted his hand and took the gun, and then Johnny ran off set. Lana and Del went to her rented house Lana was staying at, with two Scotland Yard detectives, and they escorted him to the airport to go back to the United States.
On March 16, 1958, Lana attended to Oscars to be there if she won and to present the award for Best Actor. Johnny was mad that she asked him not to attend. He waited for her to return and physically assaulted her. He returned to her home again on the evening of April 4, where another fight ensued. She began threatening her family again. Cheryl went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife, thinking her mother’s life was in danger. He started to beat Lana and when he turned around, Cheryl stabbed and killed Johnny.
She was tried in an inquest and it was found to be jusifable homicide. Originally she was a temporary ward of the state, until she went to juvielle court, and was released to the care of her grandmother and ordered to complete counseling with parents. In 1962, Lana and her ex-husband steve was sued by Johnny’s family for 750,000, for a wrongful death suit, but later settled for 20,000. That same year, a book by Harold Robbins, was released loosely based on the relationship, later a movie, with the same name, was made and starred Bette Davis and Susan Hayward.
In the midst of negative publicity of the trial and verdict, Lana started filming her film Imitation of Life and was released in 1959. The movie was extremely hard for Lana to shoot; she suffered a panic attack on the first day. One of co-stars, Juanita Moore, remembered that when they filmed her death scene, Lana cried and could not return to work for days. The movie ended up being the biggest films of her career and she made 2 million from (around 20.5 Million in 2023).
During this time, Cheryl came out to her parents, and her parents seemed supportive. There was mother-daughter tension. Cheryl seemed to be dealing with a lot of trauma, due the homicide of Johnny, and would constantly run away. Lana sent her to stay at the psychiatry facility, Insitiute of Living, in HArtford, Connectcuit.
In 1960, Lana starred in a film noir, opposite Anthony Quinn and Sandra Dee, called Portrait in Black. February, Lana received her start on the Walk of Fame. In November, Lana married her fifth husband,Frederick May, who she meant while filming Imitation of Life, at a beach party, in Malibu,and moved into his Chino ranchhouse. They had a quiet home life and caring for their horses.
The following year, Lana made her last MGM film Bachelor in Paradise, alongside Bob Hope. When the film completed, Lana was able to cash out the remainder of her pension, 92,000. That same year, Lana also starred in By Love Possessed, which became the first in-flight move shown on a regular basis. In October 1962, Lana and Fred divorced, due to the marriage running its course and remained friends for the rest of her life. In 1965, She met and married her sixth husband, Robert Eaton, Hollywood producer and businessman, and got married in June.
Lana’s Later Career: Theater, Final roles and Memoir
In 1966, Lana starred in the courtroom drama, Madame X, based on the 1908 play, and played a lower-class woman who married into a wealthy family. At the end of 1968, Lana starred in the thriller The Big Cube, where she played a hieress being drugged by her step daughter, with LCD, to make her go crazy so she could obtain her fortune. Lana divorced Robert, in April of 1969, after learning of his infidelity. In a couple weeks time, Lana married her last husband,Ronald Pellar, at a disco in Los Angeles. He intially told her that he was a psychologist, but she later found out that was a lie.
Film offers began to dry up for Lana, therefore she agreed to co-star in the soap opera The Survivors, premiering in 1969, but got canceled 15 episodes into the series. Shortly after this television failure, Lana’s marriage to Ronald began to dissolve. Lana gave him 35,000 dollars as an investment, but it soon became obvious that he took the money for himself. She also accused him of stealing 100,00 dolars worth of her jewelry, but he denied this and there were no charges filed. She divorced him in January of 1960. After her final divorce, Lana reportedly stayed celibate unti her death.
After a hiatus, Lana starred in Persecution, a British horror film where she portrayed a rich mother who tormented her son, which was released in 1974. In April of the next year, Lana was honored at a gala to look back on her impressive career, in New York City. In 1976, Lana starred in her last movie for almost ten years. This movie was called Bittersweet Love, where she played the mother of a woman who unknowingly married her half-brother.
Lana made the move to theater, appearing in an east coast tour of Forty Carats, in 1971. She appeared in a touring production of Bell, Book, and Candle, as Gillian Holroyd, from 1976 to 1978. From 1979 to 1980, she starred in Murder Among Friends, touring in various U.S. cities. During this time, Lana’s life started to have a downward spiral, as she was suffering from alcoholism that surfaced in the the late 1950s, her weight was down to 95 pounds or 43 kg, and would miss performances.
In 1980, Lana starred in her last film, Witches’ Brew, opposite Teri Garr. At this time, she began to practice Catholicism again, in what Lana referred to as a religious awakening. Lana made an appearance on Falcon Crest, as Jacqueline Perrault, in December 1981, and was extended to five more episodes. In September of 1982, Lana wrote her memoir, Lana: The Lady, The Legend, and The Truth. Lana made her final on-screen performance on The Love Boat, in 1985.
Lana was a drinker and smoker, throughout most of her career and life, MGM even had airbrush cigarettes out of photographs to hide her smoking. Lana quit drinking in her late sixties, but was never able to kick smoking cigarettes. In the spring of 1982, Lana was diagnosed with Throat Cancer. Lana said that it was detected early and she did not develop any damage to her vocal chords and larynx. She underwent radiation therapy, after doctors discovered, during an exploratory surgery, that the cancer spread to her jaw and lunged. In Early 1993, announced that she was in remission, but sadly the cancer returned July 1994.
In September 1994, Lana appeared at the San Sebastian Film Festival, to receive a lifetime achievement award, which she attended in a wheelchair for the majority of the event. On June 29, 1995, less than a year later, at the age of 74, Lana lost her battle with cancer at her home, in Century City, Los Angeles. Lana died with her daughter Cheryl by her side. Lana was cremated and given to Cheryl. Lana’s will came into question, because her estate was worth 1.7 million dollars and Cheryl and her life partner Joyce LeRoy only got 30,000, whereas Lana’s maid Carmen Lopez Cruz, who was her friend for 45 years and took care of her when she got sick. Cheryl fought the will but a majority of Carmen’s inheritance went probate costs, legal and medical fees.
I really enjoyed learning about Lana. This blog took me awhile because I wanted to learn more and more. First off, a lot of people judged Lana for her marriages, but sometimes things do not work out. Plus there are male actors with higher number of marriages and never get judged. I am not a psychologist, by any means, but I think losing her dad at 9, she was always searching for the love of a man. She seemed like she was a good person and a great mom. She supported Cheryl through the murder trial of Johnny. I must say that agree with the justifiable verdict homicide. He previously attempted to choke Lana, so there is no doubt in my mind that Lana would be dead that night, if Cheryl did not protect her.
When Cheryl came out as lesbian to her parent, they both supported her. Cheryl wrote about her sexuality in her book and stated that Lana was worried that people would tell Cheryl that her mother failed her. But Cheryl told her mom that she did not, and that took any guilt she felt. She did not want people to call her a bad mother, but never stopped loving her daughter and I think deep down, she did not think it was wrong. I am defiantly going watch some of her movies; I love old movies and look forward to getting to know her work with my daughter.
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