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The Girl Who Never Came Back

July 2024
18min read

Dorothy Arnold’s baffling disappearance, fifty years afterward, is still unsolved

The girl was twenty-five years old, stood five feet lour inches in height, and weighed about 140 pounds—just about right for a fashionable young lady of the time. She was a niece of a justice of the United States Supreme Court and the daughter of a family so wealthy that she could be called an heiress. As the flowery journalese of the era pictured her, she was “at the summit of her youth, rich, especially preferred, blessed with prospects, and to the outer eye completely happy.”

Her name was Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold. At two o’clock on the afternoon of December 12, 1910, she stood talking to a girl friend outside Brentano’s bookshop, then located at Fifth Avenue and Twentyseventh Street in New York City. A moment later she vanished, never to be seen again—at least never by anyone who both recognized her and acknowledged her existence to the world.

As one newspaper remarked, “She disappeared from one of the busiest streets on earth, at the sunniest hour of a brilliant afternoon, with thousands within sight and reach, men and women who knew her on every side, and officers of the law thickly strewn about her path.” How? Why? Did the young heiress disappear of her own accord? Was she kidnapped and murdered? The total mystery ol the Dorothy Arnold case is as unfathomable today as it was fifty years ago. Dorothy Arnold was hardly the madcap, kick-up-her-heels type of girl who might easily get into trouble. One had simply to look at her wide, placid lace to realize that she was more studious than frivolous. She had graduated from Bryn Mawr five years before and still retained the serene, slightly lofty demeanor of the ultraserious female collegian. A quiet-looking, sturdy girl with a healthy complexion, she had brown hair done up in a high pompadour, and steady, blue-gray eyes.

By modern standards, the Arnold family would seem stully and somewhat forbidding. It was presided over by chop-whiskered Francis R. Arnold, a seventy-threeyear-old businessman, who proudly traced his lineage straight back to the Mayflower; it was his sister who had married Supreme Court Justice Rufus Peckham. Mrs. Arnold was equally well-connected, and the family ranked high in the old guard of New York society, then noted for its propriety and unbending reticence.

On the day of her disappearance, Dorothy Arnold was expensively and modishly clad, a fact that would make her highly conspicuous at a time when class distinctions in female dress were sharp. That day she wore a well-tailored suit, with a blue serge coat and a tight hobble skirt in a matching color; she carried both a huge silver-fox mutt and a satin handbag. But by far the most conspicuous feature of her attire was her hat. It was made of black velvet, with two blue roses for decoration—a type then called a “Baker,” which resembles nothing so much as an overturned dishpan. The lining of this oversized chapeau was Alice blue, the maker’s name was “Genevieve,” and along its edge, rimming Dorothy’s pleasant, open face, ran a fetching bit of scalloped lace.

So attired, Dorothy Arnold descended the stairway of her family home at 108 East Seventy-ninth Street, about eleven o’clock on the morning of December 12. In the main hall—which newspapers were later to describe as magnificently furnished—she found her mother waiting. Dorothy informed her that she planned to spend the day shopping for an evening dress to wear at her sister Marjorie’s coming-out party, five days hence on the seventeenth.

Mrs. Arnold was widely believed to be a semi-invalid who seldom left the residence on Seventy-ninth Street. Nevertheless, on this particular day she seemed more than walling to venture out of doors. “Maybe I’d better go with you,” Mrs. Arnold said to her daughter.

It is safe to say that every student of crime who has examined the Dorothy Arnold case has wondered if her reply was fondly solicitous, or simply irritated. For in any display of anger there might be a cine to the girl’s inner feelings about her family. But no one will ever know. Mrs. Arnold, recounting the episode later, reported that Dorothy had merely answered, “No, Mother, don’t bother. You don’t feel just right and it’s no use going to the trouble. I mightn’t see a thine I want, but if I do, I’ll phone you.”

As she departed from her home, Dorothy carried no luggage—though it is conceivable that a nightgown might have been hidden in the depths of her large muff. She had with her about $25 of a monthly allowance of $100. The day before, she had withdrawn $36 from the bank to lake some girl friends to lunch at Sherry’s, followed by a matinee. Presumably, she carried the remainder of that sum with her as she walked along Seventy-ninth Street toward Fifth Avenue. Those who glimpsed her familiar figure recalled that her demeanor was normal. If anything, Dorothy Arnold looked cheerful.

At Fifth Avenue she turned left, and headed downtown. To all intents and purposes, this was the beginning of her last walk on earth, and it is possible to say that she made the most of it. December 12 was not an especially good day underfoot; the winter weather was raw, and strips of ice made the Fifth Avenue sidewalks treacherous. Yet Dorothy traversed the twenty blocks to Fifty-ninth Street on foot. There she paused at Park & Tilford’s candy counter to purchase a halfpound box of chocolates. The salesgirl recognized her as a familiar customer, and without question added the purchase to the Arnold family account.

It was now noon. Dropping the candy into the capacious muff, Dorothy returned to the street for the second lap of her last known walk. This brought her to Twenty-seventh Street—thirty-two blocks more, fifty-two in all. No one, police or family, ever saw anything unusual in the extent of this heroic trek. Dorothy was a robust girl whose health was flawless. Walking was her only exercise.

But Dorothy was more artistic than athletic. In the elegant prose of the day, a newspaper would list her diversions as “private theatricals, musical soirees and literary conversaziones.” Of these, literature was by far the most prominent, for in addition to a lively interest in the writings of others, Dorothy was also trying to be a writer herself.

Only two months before, after her return from a vacation at the family summer home in Maine, Dorothy had requested her lather’s permission to take an apartment in Greenwich Village, a district which even then had a reputation lor stimulating creative effort. The elderly Mr. Arnold had exploded into a fine display of parental wrath: “A good writer can write anywhere,” he pontificated, and Hatly refused Dorothy permission to leave home.

Well-behaved society girl that she was, Dorothy dared not push the matter further, instead, she followed her father’s advice, and during the next few weeks wrote a short story (ailed “Poinsettia Flames,” which she dispatched to McClures’s , the combination New Yorker-Saturday Evening Post of the day. Then she made a frightful mistake. She told her family about “Poinsettia Flames,” and they all began teasing her unmercifully about her literary pretensions. In a few days, a much-dreaded event occurred: “Poinsettia Flames” was returned. In the words of a news account, “Dorothy now found life a torment among her amused relatives.”

As time passed and the family chaffing continued unabated, Dorothy took a most unusual step lor a cloistcred young lady. One day she journeyed alone to the post office at Thirty-fourth Street, where she called for mail at the general delivery window.

By the afternoon of her disappearance, Dorothy had written another short story called “Lotus Leaves.” Whether or not this had also been rejected by McClure’s or another magazine is a question that might have provided a key *o the disappearance. But it has never been answered. All we know is that as she walked down Fifth Avenue on the aftcrncxm of December 12, Dorothy appeared more concerned with the works of others than with her own literary efforts.

Her destination was Brentano’s bookstore, where she was observed leafing through books on the newfiction counter. Finally she picked out An Engaged Girl’s Sketches , by Emily Calvin Blake, a scries of frothy love stories that had appeared in the Ladie’s Home Journal . Once more she charged the purchase to the family account; and with the wrapped book under her arm, Dorothy Arnold again stepped out on the cold Fifth Avenue sidewalk.

Outside Brentano’s she met an acquaintance—a girl named Gladys King, who the day before had received an invitation to Marjorie Arnold’s debut. Gladys had her note of acceptance in her muff, and she handed it to Dorothy with a joke about postage saved. Dorothy laughed too, and the girls stood chatting for several minutes. Then Gladys King excused herself, explaining that she had to meet her mother for lunch—it was now nearly two o’clock and she was late. She hurried away, but on the far corner of Twenty-seventh Street, she turned to wave back a second good-by to Dorothy.

Presumably, no one who knew or recognized Dorothy Arnold ever saw her again!

Return now to the Arnold home. Never had Dorothy skipped a meal without warning the family ahead of time. When she failed to return for dinner, an increasingly worried group ate without her, then began making discreet phone calls to Dorothy’s close friends to ask if the girl had, by any chance, dropped in on them. Told that she had not, the Arnolds begged that no mention ever be made of their call.

That night Elsie Henry, one of the girl friends queried, called back shortly after midnight to ask if Dorothy had returned. Mrs. Arnold answered the phone and committed the first of several acts that caused many to believe that the family knew more than it ever let on about Dorothy’s disappearance.

“Yes, she’s here,” Mrs. Arnold stated brightly, in reply to Elsie Henry’s question. But when Elsie asked to speak to Dorothy there was a momentary silence. “Oh, she had a headache and went right to bed,” Mrs. Arnold finally replied.

Over breakfast the next morning, a distracted family settled on another strange move when they decided not to summon police, instead, Dorothy’s brother John phoned a friend named John S. Keith, a junior partner in the law firm of Garvan K: Armstrong. Only a year or two older than Dorothy, Keith had occasionally escorted her to society dances or to lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Young Arnold asked Keith to stop at the house on his way downtown that morning. Keith was reluctant to do so. “Can’t it wait?” he asked. “No, this is serious,” John Arnold replied.

When he arrived at the Arnold home, Keith was taken directly to Dorothy’s room. Everything there seemed in perfect order, and Mrs. Arnold and Marjorie assured him that all of the missing girl’s clothes were hanging in the closet, except for what she had worn the day before. Opening a desk drawer, Keith found a pile of personal letters, some with foreign postmarks. On the desk-top he noted two transatlantic steamship folders.

Getting down on his knees, Keith peered into the fireplace: here he discovered a small mound of burned papers. But when he probed with his finger, he saw no writing visible on the charred remains. As Keith rose to his feet, John Arnold suggested that the burned papers might be Dorothy’s rejected manuscript.

Dorothy Arnold’s formidable father had not only inherited a large sum of money, bt he had made considerably more as the head of F. R. Arnold & Company, importers. To a young lawyer like Keith, Francis R. Arnold was potentially a valuable client. To obtain the old man’s business, Keith was fully prepared to become, for the moment, a private detective. He now suggested a search of morgues, hospitals, and even jails. Further, he offered to conduct this grisly search himself, still without informing the police. Over the weeks following, he spent days in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia walking down lanes of hospital beds, examining nameless corpses, and peering at unfortunate young females languishing in jail.

But his search led nowhere, and finally Keith recommended that the family call upon the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Pinkerton officials listened to the story of the disappearance and immediately mailed a descriptive circular on Dorothy to police departments all over the country. A reward of $1,000 was offered for any information leading to her return.

Presumably the police department of New York City received one of these circulars, but it stood firmly on protocol, refusing to act in the Dorothy Arnold matter until appealed to directly. This did not happen until January 22, 1911, six weeks after Dorothy’s disappearance. Then, accompanied by Pinkerton detectives, Keith and Francis R. Arnold called upon Deputy Police Commissioner William J. Flynn. Already informed by the Arnold family of the general outlines of the case, Flynn—who later became head of the United States Secret Service—advised an immediate meeting with the press. This would give the widest possible publicity to Dorothy’s disappearance; but it was also a tactic which the staid Mr. Arnold abhorred. Until this time only the family, the Pinkertons, and a few friends knew that Dorothy was missing. Mr. Arnold much preferred it that way, and vigorously resisted two days of intensive argument before he brought himself to tell the world about Dorothy. Then, on the afternoon of the twenty-fifth, he called reporters to his office.

Francis R. Arnold may truly have dreaded the notoriety this interview would inevitably bring. Or perhaps—as some suspected—he had some secret inkling of Dorothy’s fate. Whichever it was, the elderly gentleman’s behavior before the assembled press was gloomy to an extreme. As if lie wished the interview over as soon as possible, he immediately informed the reporters that he believed his dearly beloved daughter dead. “I believe [so] absolutely,” he stated, expressing the belief that she had been set upon while walking home through Central Park. Her body, he thought, might have been tossed into the reservoir.

“Assuming,” he recapitulated, “that she walked up home through Central Park, she could have taken the lonely walk … along the reservoir. There, because of the laxity of police supervision over the park, I believe it quite possible that she might have been murdered by garroters, and her body thrown into the lake or the reservoir. [Such] atrocious things do happen, though there seems to be no justification for them.”

With his point made, Francis Arnold obviously considered the interview over. But to his ill-concealed annoyance, the reporters began asking questions. One thing the gentlemen of the press could not believe was that anyone, even a sheltered heiress, could lead a life as dull and uneventful as that described by her father. Cherchez l’homme popped into the mind of one reporter, and he asked Mr. Arnold if he had objected to his daughter keeping company with men.

It was an excellent question, for the fierce old man instantly flew into a rage. “It is not true that f objected to her having men call at the house,” he thundered, “I would have been glad to see her associate more with young men than she did, especially some young men of brains and position: one whose profession or business would keep him occupied. I don’t approve of young men who have nothing to do.”

Men who have nothing to do … With this tantalizing phrase to spur them on, newsmen left the Arnold office to delve into Dorothy’s apparently placid existence. Soon they found the man Mr. Arnold meant.

He was hardly the type to sweep a girl off her feet, or rescue her from a stifling existence. Instead, he seemed desperately in need of rescuing himself. He was George C. Griscom, Jr., a plump, sideburned forty-two-year-old who lived with his elderly parents in Pittsburgh, and summered at Nantucket. Griscom urged all whom he met to call him “Junior.” When his parents traveled, he invariably accompanied them. One report said his doting mother still bought all his shirts and ties.

Even so, Junior had his moments of independence and so, it appeared, did Dorothy. Soon the newspapers revealed that she and Griscom, whom she presumably met while at Bryn Mawr, had at one time called themselves engaged. After this came a real shocker: recently the two had spent a week together in Boston!

During the summer of 1910 Dorothy had dutifully gone with her family to their summer home at York Harbor, Maine. Then, in mid-September, she had asked her parents if she might spend a week in Cambridge with a former college classmate named Theodora Bates.

Her parents extended permission, and on September 16 Dorothy departed. But she did nor go to Cambridge. Instead, she stayed in Boston, where she was met by Junior Griscom, who had arrived the day before and registered at the Hotel Essex. On the morning of Dorothy’s arrival Junior had gone to the Hotel Lenox, where he reserved a room and bath for her. During the following week, the two were seen together constantly. Looking animated and happy, they made no effort to hide their identities, or their presence in Boston. At the Lenox, Dorothy registered under her real name, with the correct New York address. Two days before leaving Boston, she visited a pawnshop on Boylston Street, obtaining $60 for $500 worth of assorted personal jewelry. Again she used her right name and address. It was the sharp-eyed pawnbroker who exploded to the press and police the story of her Boston sojourn.

On September 24, Dorothy had returned to York Harbor. Griscom went back to Pittsburgh, there to prepare for a trip to Europe with his father and mother.

Early in October the Arnolds returned to New York. It was at this time that Dorothy made her request for a Greenwich Village apartment, and wrote her two stories. Then, just before Thanksgiving, she again drew her former classmate, Theodora Bates, into the complicated web of her life, when she decided to visit her friend in Washington, D.C., where Theodora was teaching.

Dorothy arrived at Theodora’s home at 1820 Mintwood Place late Wednesday night. On Thanksgiving morning she expressed a desire to remain in bed. That same morning a bulky envelope was delivered for Dorothy. Here indeed is a riddle deep within a riddle; this was Thanksgiving Day, when businesses closed down and no daily mail was delivered. Dorothy may have requested the General Post Office in New York to forward her mail over the weekend, but it is unlikely that this would have been done with such exceptional dispatch even if she had left postage for special delivery.

Nor did Dorothy ever speak of knowing anyone in Washington who might have brought the package to Theodora’s door. Yet the package did arrive, and Theodora always maintained that it came by regular United States mail. On accepting the package at the door, Theodora jumped to a fast conclusion. She decided that it contained the rejected manuscript of Dorothy’s second short story, “Lotus Leaves.” Yet there is nothing to support this assumption. Dorothy, still lolling in bed, did not open the envelope or even comment on it, but tossed it aside indifferently. Theodora, although her curiosity was fully aroused, asked no questions for fear of hurting her friend’s feelings.

On Friday, Dorothy further astounded Theodora. She came downstairs for breakfast fully dressed for travel, and carrying her bag. “Why, Dorothy,” Theodora exclaimed, “it’s only Friday and you were to stay until Monday.” Dorothy shook her head. “Oh, no,” she said, “I always planned to leave today.”

At the Arnold home in New York, Dorothy’s mother was equally astonished when her daughter reappeared. “Why, what’s happened?” Mrs. Arnold demanded as Dorothy stepped through the door. “We didn’t expect you back until Monday.” Again Dorothy answered firmly, “I always intended to come home today.”

She spent the rest of the Thanksgiving weekend at home, reading and sewing. On Monday she paid a visit to the general delivery window of the Thirty-fourth Street post office, where she received several letters with foreign postmarks. Presumably these came from Griscom, who had arrived with his parents in Italy. Back home, she retired to her room and answered Griscom with a letter which he saved and later returned to the family. For the most part it was cheerful, feminine, and chatty, but toward the end there appeared an intriguing paragraph: “Well, it has come back. McClure’s has turned me down. All I can see ahead is a long road with no turning. Mother will always think an accident has happened.”

Dorothy’s emphasis on her mother, the supposed semi-invalid overwhelmed by a domineering husband, was partially explained in the six silent weeks following Dorothy’s disappearance. Mrs. Arnold, it turned out, was not only capable of doing things on her own, but also had a remarkable reserve of energy.

At the press conference on January 26, Francis Arnold stated that his wife, whose bad health had been worsened by the shock of Dorothy’s disappearance, had retired to a rest home at a New Jersey resort. There she had gone to escape the anxious hours of waiting in the Arnold home. Newspapermen were asked not to search for her, and out of deference to the lady’s health, age, and social standing, they did not. Instead, they cabled European correspondents to locate Griscom. He was quickly found in Florence, where he admitted receiving on December 16 a cable from John Keith. It read: DOROTHY ARNOLD MISSING. FAMILY PROSTRATED. CABLE GARVARMCOM IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING OF HER WHEREABOUTS .

Guests at Griscom’s hotel recalled that as he read the wire, Junior seemed agitated. “Arnold is making serious trouble,” some thought he muttered. He immediately replied: KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. JUNIOR . In the weeks following, he received other messages inquiring whether Dorothy had appeared in Florence, all of which he answered in the negative. Then, on January 16, a young man and a heavily veiled woman came to visit him. After two hours they departed, taking with them a packet of letters.

It took no master-mind to figure that the young man must be Dorothy’s older brother, John W. Arnold; he could easily have boarded a transatlantic liner in the six weeks before the story of Dorothy’s disappearance broke in the newspapers.

But who, the world wondered, was the heavily veiled woman? Was it Dorothy herself? When John Arnold returned alone to New York at the end of January, he refused to say. Some quick detective work on the part of the European correspondents revealed—to everyone’s consternation—that the veiled lady was none other than Mrs. Francis Arnold, whose privacy at the New Jersey rest home was still respectfully honored by the newspapers. She and her twenty-seven-year-old son had sailed for Europe on January 6; apparently she had remained abroad after he returned in the hope that Dorothy might still turn up near Griscom.

John W. Arnold’s arrival in New York added still another angle to the baffling case. Ship-news reporters, who had unexpectedly found him aboard the Savoie of the French Line, peppered him with questions. He professed to be totally unaware of his sister’s disappearance, claiming that he had been in Europe on a business trip since November. At the law office of Garvan & Armstrong, to which he hastily repaired, young Arnold was angered to learn that his father had a few days before released news of the missing girl to the press. He stated virtuously: “I am sorry my father should have seen fit to give out the story. I do not care to say anything more until I shall have had a chance to consult with my family.” One of the questions he chose to disregard was whether he had fought with Griscom over the packet of Dorothy’s letters, and whether he had obtained it only by knocking Junior down.

During February, Griscom returned to America with his mother and father. In New York newspapers he inserted ads in the Personal columns signed Junior, which begged Dorothy to communicate with him. No word ever came. The nation’s police, working along various theories of suicide, elopement, amnesia, and personal rebellion, found only dead ends. Reporters were no more successful. Once the headline DOROTHY ARNOLD FOUND spread across the newspapers of the country, but this turned out to be a hoax. But through all the furor Francis Arnold persisted in his stubborn assertion that Dorothy had been murdered in Central Park.

Now, fifty years later, Dorothy’s body has yet to float to the surface of a reservoir. Nor has it been found buried anywhere. There have been no deathbed confessions of identity; Dorothy has not reappeared from a life of shame. The girl who seemed to have everything has never come back in any shape or form.

What, then, happened to her?

Some believe that she may have slipped and fallen on the icy pavement, suffering a concussion that brought on amnesia. Yet no one saw her fall that day, and no hospital received a girl with a concussion or a blanked-out mind. Others point out that the drugging and abducting of attractive girls was fairly common in 1910. But this could hardly happen at midafternoon on one of the busiest streets in the world.’ Or to a healthy girl like Dorothy, so capable of fighting.

More likely is the possibility that she contrived, or connived in, her own disappearance. But to do this, Dorothy Arnold must have been either supersensitive or else supremely callous. Did the rejection of the first stories she ever submitted to a magazine, which coincided with her father’s stern refusal to let her live in Greenwich Village, or to see more of the idle Griscom, plunge her into a mood of suicidal despair?

In favor of a suicide theory, the New York World dredged up the story of Andrew Griscom, a young cousin of Junior’s. Dorothy had met him at Bryn Mawr, perhaps before she knew Junior. Shortly after, Andrew Griscom had leaped from the deck of a transatlantic liner because his Philadelphia Main Line family would not allow him to marry an English governess. This may have left a lasting mark on the impressionable Dorothy, becoming her pattern of behavior when disappointed in life and love.

WAS MISS ARNOLD LED TO SUICIDE BY AUTO-SUGGESTION ? asked the World , tying her story to Andrew Griscom’s death. This theory might seem to be borne out by the steamship folders found on Dorothy’s desk. But at the same time no passengers were reported missing from ocean-crossing liners during the early days of her disappearance. A more reasonable possibility is that Dorothy leaped from the Fall River side-wheeler which left New York at five P.M. daily; suicides favored these overnight boats, for no passenger list was kept. Passengers merely walked aboard, chose a cabin, and paid on getting off. It would have been simple for her to jump into Long Island Sound during the night.

But people who are about to destroy themselves usually seem depressed. Dorothy’s steady good humor at home, her lively anticipation of her sister’s debut, the banter with Gladys King outside Brentano’s—all these indicate a normal state of mind, not a desire for self-destruction.

What else, then?

Well, without meaning to tarnish the reputation o a girl unable to defend herself, there is the possibility that Dorothy may have been something of a hybrid in the Arnold family. Impulses undreamed of by proper parents may have been fanned into flame by the week with Griscom in Boston. Dorothy may have returned with a fierce hatred of them and her empty society life. She may have become pregnant by Griscom. He or someone else may have supplied her with the name of an abortionist—perhaps along with the necessary funds, in the package so surprisingly delivered on Thanksgiving Day in Washington. This may have led to contact with the underworld, and the pent-up Dorothy may have seized on this road to a new kind of life. Or she may have died on an abortionist’s table.

But if she did slip into another life, her insensitivity was colossal, for she could not have avoided reading in newspapers of the distress she was causing her family. “It would be bad enough,” the stern Francis Arnold cried out once, “if the daughter I loved so well [were] lying beside her grandmother in Greenwood Cemetery, but this suspense and uncertainty are a thousand times worse.”

And that uncertainty was never resolved. Francis R. Arnold died in 1922, his wife in 1928. Both left behind them wills which stated: “I have made no provision for my beloved daughter, Dorothy H. C. Arnold, as I am satisfied that she is not alive.”

In 1921, the case burst into unexpected life when Captain J. H. Ayers, head of the New York City Department of Missing Persons, announced in a speech before the student body of the High School of Commerce that the real truth about Dorothy Arnold had been known for many months to family and police. By the next day the Captain denied that he had ever said this. A complete misunderstanding, he said. His tongue had slipped, and he had been misquoted.

On December 11, 1935, the twenty-fifth year after the disappearance, police told reporters that tips on Dorothy Arnold still came in. About six months before, a tipster claimed to have seen her at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-third Street. Despite the fact that it would be difficult to recognize her after a quarter of a century, detectives were dispatched to the corner in question. There they stood for several hours, peering vainly into the faces of passers-by.

Since that day, nothing. As Edward Henry Smith wrote in his Mysteries of the Missing , the Dorothy Arnold case has been called “a disappearance which had from the beginning no standard in rationality, being logically both impenetrable and irreconcilable. It remains obstinate and perplexing, a gall to human curiosity, an impossible problem for reason and analytical power.”

It is no less so today.

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