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Preston Sturges

Preston Sturges

Preston Sturges (1898-1959) was the first writer-turned-director in the history of talking movies, and one of the greatest film directors of any variety. He is best known for the comedies he made in the early 1940s. His films are distinguished by a zany wit and brilliant, madcap dialogue.

Preston Sturges was born Edmund Preston Biden on August 29, 1898 in Chicago, Illinois. His was not a traditional upbringing. His mother, Mary, had several husbands and lovers. She was also a close friend of the dancer Isadora Duncan, sharing with her a lifestyle that might be described as "loose." In the autobiography, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, the director describes his mother as having a "vivid fantasy life … anything she said three times she believed fervently." In turn, his father, Edmund Biden, was an alcoholic.

By 1900, two years after Edmund Preston was born, his parents had divorced. Mary had earlier begun a relationship with Solomon Sturges, a wealthy Chicago stockbroker, whom she married in October 1901. In January 1902, Solomon formally adopted her son, who was thereafter known as Preston Sturges.

Sturges's mother soon found life as the wife of a Chicago stockbroker too restrictive. The couple agreed that Mary would spend half her time in Europe, half in Chicago. With her friend Isadora, she cavorted around the Continent, leaving Preston parked with various acquaintances, and, later, at various boarding schools. In 1911, Solomon Sturges filed for divorce. Even though he was not Preston's birth father, he still treated him as a son and the two remained extremely close-in contrast to Preston's relationship with his real dad, who only reappeared much later in his life to ask for money.

The Young Continental

There were advantages to Sturges's bohemian childhood. As Donald Spoto wrote in Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, "[As a teenager], he had an easy poise and engaging charm, for his innate intelligence and quickness of wit had been naturally augmented by an exposure to the widest variety of cosmopolitan influences … he had become, in fact, a young Continental, with a keen appreciation of good food and wine, of wit, sensuality and sociability."

In his later teens, Sturges lived in New York, attending school on and off, and working in his mother's cosmetics business. In 1918, he reported as a cadet in the aviation section of the U.S. Signal Corps. He served for 14 months and received his commission as a second lieutenant. After completing his military service, he returned to New York and the cosmetics business. Sturges became interested in science and enjoyed playing with gadgets. For the next few years, he spent much of his time working for his mother and trying his hand at inventing.

Sturges was tall and handsome, and eventually stole 19-year-old Estelle Godfrey away from her rich husband. Godfrey, who was well-off financially, married Sturges in 1923. The two purchased a house in Westchester, New York. Between 1924 and 1926, they alternated between country life in the suburbs and an avid social life in the city; however, the marriage ended in 1927.

A Late Bloomer

It was not until Sturges was about 30 that he began his writing career. An aspiring actress had ended an affair with Sturges, telling him that she had only dated him to find material for a play she wanted to write. Sturges told her that he could write a better play than she could. In three weeks, he produced a comedy based on the affair called The Guinea Pig.

While getting a play produced in the United States has never been easy, New York in the late 1920s offered many opportunities for a young playwright. Between Broadway and small theaters, about 250 plays were produced each year. Hoping to meet a prospective producer, Sturges entered the theater world as an assistant stage manager. Soon he met a lawyer, Charles Abramson, who told him that a playwright could produce a play himself for as little as $2,500, plus theater rental. A wealthy friend of his mother's lent him the money, and Sturges opened his play in early January 1929. Most of the New York papers gave it good reviews, and, for a small production, the show made a nice profit.

First Big Success

Within a few months, Sturges had written his next play, Strictly Dishonorable. The plot revolved around an Italian opera star and ladies' man who seduces the innocent fiancee of an uptight prig. However, what begins as sexual conquest becomes love, and the play ends with the two set to travel the world and have 11 children. As Spoto writes in Madcap, the play "… had all the characteristics of Preston Sturges's best achievements of the stage and screen: the witty, pointed conversation; the acute sense of social satire; the deftly developed characters; and action as well as dialogue that typically derives from those characters-never from an imposed theme or labored thesis." The play was a big hit with audiences and made Sturges a wealthy man-at least temporarily.

With a successful show, Sturges was soon sought out by film studios to polish scripts. He was paid $10,000 to provide a few lines for the The Big Pond, which took him just a couple of days to complete. He also quickly wrote another play, Rapture, which opened in January 1930. The reviews were poor, and it closed after 24 performances. In November, his fourth play, The Well of Romance, lasted just eight days. After his fifth play, Child of Manhattan, was released, a The New York Times review stated, "The more young Mr. Preston Sturges continues to write follow-ups to Strictly Dishonorable, the more we wonder who wrote Strictly Dishonorable."

Perhaps Sturges was distracted by his affair with Eleanor Post Hutton, a wealthy socialite. Her family was fiercely critical of the alliance, and the two eloped in April 1930. This marriage did not last either, and the couple parted in 1932.

Go West, Young Writer

In December 1932, with a string of failed plays and in debt, Sturges headed West. He signed on for three months as a contract writer at Universal Studios for $1,000 a week. He was put to work on the film The Invisible Man, but the proposed director was unhappy with his work, and his option was dropped.

On his own, Sturges wrote The Power and the Glory. The film received mostly good reviews, but it did not do well at the box office. The unusual and powerful screenplay did, however, enhance Sturges's reputation significantly. In fact, it did much more. Not only did the film introduce Spencer Tracy to filmgoers, it was also sold on a royalty basis with the provision that it not be changed by the director-a first for Hollywood. Sturges was on the set throughout filming and had a major hand in the final product, acting much more like a playwright than screenwriter. Additionally, the experience made Sturges realize that it really was the director who held sway on the set, and it confirmed his ambition to direct his own films someday.

Over the next several years-while living with a fiery beauty, Bianca Gilchrist-Sturges worked as a screenwriter, spending a few months at one studio, then moving on to another. Columbia, Universal, and others all paid him handsomely to work on their pictures. Paramount was especially hospitable to writers, and it was there that Sturges perfected his skills as a writer of screwball comedies in films like Easy Living. By 1938, he was making $2,750 a week; he was one of the highest paid writers in Hollywood. That year, he married his third wife, Louise Sargent Tevis, who would give Sturges his first son in 1941, Solomon Sturges IV. The marriage was a relatively long one for Sturges, ending almost nine years later in 1947.

Other Endeavors

With his improved financial situation, Sturges indulged his love for mechanical contraptions and established the Sturges Engineering Company in 1935. It sold an improved design of the internal combustion engine. Sturges was not a passive investor; he would stop by the factory to talk with the foreman and maintained a keen interest in technical developments. The company survived during World War II, but was liquidated soon afterwards.

Sturges also became involved in the restaurant business, financing Snyder's Restaurant in 1936. In 1940, he opened another, much bigger restaurant, The Players. It became a hangout for Hollywood celebrities, like Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch. Both restaurants were money-losers. Snyder's closed in 1938; The Players lasted until 1953, but only with Sturges making up significant deficits.

The Great Director

As the 1930s drew to a close, Sturges finally realized his dream of directing. He sold The Great McGinty to Paramount for $1 (eventually upped to $10 by the studio's legal department), with the condition that he would be allowed to direct it. While writer/directors, like Billy Wilder and John Huston, were to become common, in Sturges's day they were unheard-of. A political satire, McGinty was about, as Diane Jacobs wrote in Christmas in July: The Life and Times of Preston Sturges, "the American dream rebuked by American reality. About the inexorableness of character, the dire consequences of romantic love, the inadequacy of justice, and the quarrel between free will and destiny." Despite a bout with pneumonia, Sturges brought the film in ahead of schedule and under budget. McGinty was a resounding critical and financial success when it opened in 1940.

Over the next five years, Sturges would direct the string of comedy hits that movie watchers continue to adore: Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, and Hail the Conquering Hero. These films, as David Everitt wrote in The New York Times, "were peopled with such characters as the man-crazy bobby-soxer Trudy Kockenblocker, the bemused millionaire John D. Hackensacker 3d, and a would-be war hero saddled with the moniker Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith." The movies are replete with brilliant, hilarious dialogue, like the repartee between galon-the-make Barbara Stanwyck and millionaire ophiologist (snake scientist) Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve. Geoffrey O'Brien wrote of Sturges in The New York Review of Books, "He breaks every rule of movies by putting language at the center and making the whole film swirl around it."

Decline and Fall

Hail the Conquering Hero, released in 1944, marked the high point of Sturges's career. Soon afterwards, his The Great Moment, opened to mixed reviews and was a commercial failure. The following year, he joined with the ty-coon Howard Hughes to form the California Pictures Corporation. Sturges was to make films; Hughes would make airplanes and supply the money for both. The venture soon went sour and Hughes ended the partnership.

The film that probably ended Sturges's career was Unfaithfully Yours, made for movie mogul Daryl Zanuck at Fox in 1948. It opened to only mildly positive reviews and was a commercial flop. Not only was the film expensive to make, but it was the victim of poor luck. Its plot includes a scene where the lead character, played by Rex Harrison, kills his wife. Just before the film was set for release, actress Carole Landis, apparently grief-stricken over a doomed, much-publicized affair with Harrison, committed suicide. There was no way Fox could show the picture under the circumstances, and its release was postponed for several months. Shortly afterward, another Sturges film, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, also proved disappointing.

In 1951, Sturges married his fourth wife, Anne Margaret Nagle, known as "Sandy." They had two sons, Preston and Thomas Preston. Professionally, the 1950s were punctuated by failure. Sturges did manage to write and direct one movie for a French production company, which was released in America under the title The French They Are a Funny Race. The film did well in Europe and made a modest profit in the United States, but it did little to rehabilitate Sturges's reputation.

In February 1959, Sturges began work on his autobiography, commissioned by the publishers Henry Holt. In his New York Review article, Geoffrey O'Brien writes, "It was somehow in keeping with Sturges's destiny to have the rare privilege of scripting his own death scene." While working on his autobiography, Sturges wrote "[I have] a bad case of indigestion … I am well-versed in the remedy: ingest a little Maalox, lie down, stretch out, and hope to God I don't croak." As O'Brien reports, he died twenty minutes later, on August 6, 1959 in New York City.

Further Reading

Jacobs, Diane, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, University of California Press, 1992.

Spoto, Donald, Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, Little, Brown 1990.

Sturges, Preston, Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, Simon &Schuster, 1990.

Atlantic Monthly, February 1996.

New York Review of Books, December 20, 1990.

New York Times, July 19, 1998.

"Preston Sturges Index," http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Set/7321/sturgesindex.html (March 9, 1999).

"The Official Preston Sturges Site," http://www.prestonsturges.com/biography.html (March 9, 1999). □

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Sturges, Preston

STURGES, Preston


Nationality: American. Born: Edmund P. Biden in Chicago, 29 August 1898; adopted by mother's second husband, Solomon Sturges. Education: Educated in Chicago (Coulter School); Lycée Janson, Paris; Ecole des Roches, France; Villa Lausanne, Switzerland; and in Berlin and Dresden. Family: Married 1) Estelle Mudge (divorced 1928); 2) Eleanor Post Hutton, 1932 (annulled 1932); 3) Louise Sergeant Tervis (divorced); 4) actress Anna Nagle (known professionally as Sandy Mellen), three sons. Career: Managed mother's cosmetic shop in Deauville, then New York, early 1910s; runner for Wall Street brokerage firm, 1914; enlisted in Air Corps, attended School of Military Aeronautics, Austin, Texas, 1917; returned to cosmetic business in New York, invented kissproof lipstick, 1919; turned business over to mother, worked in various jobs and as inventor; playwright, from 1927; The Guinea Pig ran 16 weeks on Broadway, 1929; scriptwriter from 1930, moved to Hollywood, 1932; directed own screenplays, from 1940; also manager of Sturges Engineering Company, producing diesel engines; began association with Howard Hughes, 1944; moved to Paris, 1949. Awards: Oscar


for Best Original Screenplay, for The Great McGinty, 1940; Laurel Award for Achievement (posthumously), Writers Guild of America, 1974. Died: At the Algonquin Hotel, New York, 6 August 1959.


Films as Director and Scriptwriter:

1940

The Great McGinty; Christmas in July

1941

The Lady Eve ; Sullivan's Travels

1942

The Palm Beach Story

1944

Hail the Conquering Hero; The Miracle of Morgan's Creek; The Great Moment

1947

Mad Wednesday (+ pr)

1948

Unfaithfully Yours (+ pr)

1949

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (+ pr)

1951

Vendetta (co-d with Ferrer, uncredited)

1957

Les Carnets du Major Thompson (The French, They Area Funny Race)



Other Films:

1930

The Big Pond (Henley) (co-sc, co-dialogue); Fast and Loose (Newmeyer) (sc, dialogue)

1931

Strictly Dishonorable (Stahl) (sc, play basis)

1933

The Power and the Glory (Howard) (sc); Child of Manhattan (Buzzell) (sc, play basis)

1934

Thirty-Day Princess (Gering) (co-sc); We Live Again (Mamoulian) (co-sc); Imitation of Life (Stahl) (co-sc, uncredited)

1935

The Good Fairy (Wyler) (sc); Diamond Jim (Sutherland) (co-sc)

1936

Next Time We Love (Edward Griffith) (co-sc, uncredited); One Rainy Afternoon (Lee) (lyrics for "Secret Rendezvous")

1937

Hotel Haywire (Archainbaud) (sc); Easy Living (Leisen) (sc)

1938

Port of Seven Seas (Whale) (sc); If I Were King (Lloyd) (sc)

1940

Remember the Night (Leisen) (sc)

1947

I'll Be Yours (Seiter) (screenplay basis)

1951

Strictly Dishonorable (Frank and Panama) (play basis)

1956

The Birds and the Bees (Taurog) (screenplay basis)

1958

Rock-a-bye Baby (Tashlin) (screenplay basis); Paris Holiday (Oswald) (role as Serge Vitry)



Publications


By STURGES: books—

Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, edited by Brian Henderson, Berkeley, 1985.

Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges, edited by Sandy Sturges, New York, 1990.


By STURGES: articles—

"Conversation with Preston Sturges," with Gordon Gow, in Sightand Sound (London), Spring 1956.

Interview, in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.

On STURGES: books—

Cywinski, Ray, Satires and Sideshows: The Films and Career ofPreston Sturges, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.

Gordon, James R., Comic Structures in the Films of Preston Sturges, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.

Curtis, James, Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges, New York, 1982.

Cywinski, Ray, Preston Sturges: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1984.

Dickos, Andrew, Intrepid Laughter: Preston Sturges and the Movies, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1985.

Spoto, Donald, Madcap: The Life of Preston Sturges, Boston, 1990.

Jacobs, Diane, Christmas in July: The Life and Art of Preston Sturges, Berkeley, 1992.

Rozgonyi, Jay, Preston Sturges's Vision of America, Scotch Plains, New Jersey, 1995.

James, Harvey, Romantic Comedy: In Hollywood from Lubitsch toSturges, New York, 1998.


On STURGES: articles—

Ericsson, Peter, "Preston Sturges," in Sequence (London), Summer 1948.

Kracauer, Siegfried, "Preston Sturges or Laughter Betrayed," in Films in Review (New York), February 1950.

King, Nel, and G.W. Stonier, "Preston Sturges," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer/Autumn 1959.

Farber, Manny, and W.S. Poster, "Preston Sturges: Success in the Movies," and Eric Jonsson, "Preston Sturges and the Theory of Decline," in Film Culture (New York), no. 26, 1962.

Houston, Penelope, "Preston Sturges," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1965.

Budd, Michael, "Notes on Preston Sturges and America," in FilmSociety Review (New York), January 1968.

Sarris, Andrew, "Preston Sturges in the Thirties," in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970/71.

Corliss, Richard, "Preston Sturges," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Spring 1972.

Rubenstein, E., "The Home Fires: Aspects of Sturges's Wartime Comedy," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (New York), Spring 1982.

Rebello, S., and J. Curtis, "King of Comedy: The Rise of Preston Sturges," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), May 1982.

Rubinstein, E., "The End of Screwball Comedy: The Lady Eve and The Palm . . . ," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Spring-Summer 1982.

"Preston Sturges Issue" of Positif (Paris), July/August 1984.

Schickel, Richard, "Preston Sturges: Alien Dreamer," in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1985.

Henderson, B., "Sturges at Work," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1985/1986.

Brown, Geoff, "Preston Sturges Inventor," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1986.

Sarris, Andrew, "Comedies with Bite," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1986.

Shokoff, James, "A Knockenlocker by Any Other Word: The Democratic Comedy of Preston Sturges," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), vol. 8, no. 1, 1988.

Douin, J.-L., "Le Feydeau d'Hollywood," in Télérama (Paris), no. 2273, 4 August 1993.

Corliss, R., "Still Talking," in Film Comment (Denville, New Jersey), vol. 28, no. 6, November-December 1992.

Schnelle, F., "Niemals müde: oder zwei Leben in einema," in EPDFilm (Frankfurt), vol. 7, no. 8, August 1990.

Youngerman, Joseph C., "The Olden Days according to Youngerman," DGA (Los Angeles), vol. 20, no. 3, July-August 1995.

Doak, Robert, in Journal Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 25, no. 2, Summer 1997.

Parla, Paul, and Donna Parla, "Newfound Faith. Rediscovering the Elusive Faith Domergue," in Filmfax (Evanston, Illinois), no. 59, February-March 1997.


* * *

As a screenwriter, Preston Sturges stands out for his narrative inventiveness. All of the amazing coincidences and obvious repetitions in such comedies as Easy Living and The Good Fairy show Sturges's mastery of the standard narrative form, as well as his ability to exaggerate it and shape it to his own needs. Moreover, in The Power and the Glory (an early model for Citizen Kane), Sturges pioneered the use of voice-over narration to advance a story.

Along with John Huston, Sturges was one of the first of the sound-era screenwriters to become a director, and those films that he made from his own screenplays take even further the narrative experiments he began as a writer in the 1930s. He continued making comedies, but often he combined them with elements that more properly belonged to social dramas in the Warner Brothers tradition, even though Sturges himself worked primarily for Paramount. The Great McGinty, for instance, deals with big-city political corruption. Christmas in July, despite its happy end, analyzes an American dream perverted by dishonesty and commercial hype. And Sullivan's Travels, even as it mixes aspects of It Happened One Night and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, examines the uses of comedy in a society burdened by poverty and social injustice.

With The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve, Sturges goes from combining genres to parodying the standard narrative form. Traditionally, in the classical narrative, elements repeat from scene to scene, but with slight differences each time. The story, then, becomes a series of episodes that are similar, but not obviously so. The Palm Beach Story, however (although we cannot be sure of this until the end), deals with two sets of twins, one pair male and the other female, and Sturges takes full advantage of a practically infinite number of possibilities for doubling and repetition.

In The Lady Eve, there are no twins to call our attention to how Sturges exaggerates the typical narrative. But the central female character, Jean, changes her identity and becomes Eve Harrington, an English aristocrat, so she can double-cross the man who jilted her when he found out she made her living as a con artist. So in this film, too, Sturges provides us with some obvious doubling. In fact, The Lady Eve divides neatly into two very similar parts: the shipboard romance of Charles and Jean, and then the romance, on land, of Charles and Jean-as-Eve. In this second half, the film virtually turns into a screwball comedy version of Vertigo. Charles falls in love with a woman who looks exactly like another woman he had loved and lost, and who, indeed, really is that woman.

The Lady Eve is most interesting in the way that it stands narrative convention on its head. Charles Pike, a wealthy ale heir, looks for snakes on the Amazon, but as soon as he leaves the jungle and heads back to civilization, the hunter becomes the hunted. This inversion itself is hardly remarkable, either in literature or the cinema. What does stand out as unusual is that the predators are all women. Pike boards a luxury liner steaming back to the United States, and every unmarried woman on board decides to end the voyage engaged to him, to "catch" him just as Charles had been trying to capture reptiles. Few films from this period feature such active, aggressive female characters.

Sturges works out the notion of feminine entrapment not only in his script but also through his visual style. On board, Jean plots to get Charles, and Sturges shows us her predatory skill by letting her capture Pike's image. In the dining room, Jean watches as various women attempt to attract Pike's attention. She does not want him to see her staring, so she turns away from Pike's table and holds a mirror to her face, as if she were giving a quick re-arrangement to her makeup. But instead she uses the mirror to watch Charles. Sturges cuts to a close-up of the mirror, and so we share Jean's point of view. As spectators, we are used to an appreciative male gaze, and are accustomed to a woman as the subject of that gaze. But here, once again, Sturges reverses our expectations. In his tale it is the woman who plays the voyeur. As an added show of her strength, it is Jean who apparently controls the images through her possession of the mirror. She thus captures an unknowing Charles within the frame of a looking-glass.

Sturges's most interesting achievement may be his 1948 film, Unfaithfully Yours. Here, he shows the same event three times. While fairly common in literature, this sort of narrative construction is extremely rare in the cinema. But even in literature, the repeated event almost always comes to us from the points of view of different characters. In Sturges's films, we see the event the first and second time through the eyes of the same man: an orchestra conductor plots revenge on his wife, whom he suspects of infidelity, and he imagines two different ways of accomplishing his goal. Then, the next repetition, rather than being imaginary, actually depicts the conductor's attempts to murder his wife. So, since the conductor acts once again as the main character, even this last repetition comes to us from his point of view. The film stands out, then, as a remarkable case study of the thoughts and actions of a single character, and as one more of Sturges's experiments in narrative repetition.

During the early and mid-1940s, critics hailed Sturges as a comic genius. But after Unfaithfully Yours, over the last eleven years of his life, Sturges made only two more films. Upon leaving Paramount, he set out to make films for Howard Hughes, but the attempt was an illfated one, and Sturges's standing in the critical community declined rapidly. For several years, though, a reevaluation has been underway. Sturges's sophisticated handling of sexual relations (which the heiress in The Palm Beach Story refers to as "Topic A") make his films seem remarkably contemporary. And there can be no doubting Sturges's screenwriting abilities. But only recently have critics come to appreciate Sturges's consummate skills as a filmmaker.

—Eric Smoodin

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Sturges, Preston

Preston Sturges (stûr´jĬs), 1898–1959, American film director, screenwriter, and producer, b. Chicago as Edmond Preston Biden. Educated in the United States and Europe, he turned to playwriting during the 1920s, penning works that included the hit Broadway comedy Strictly Dishonorable (1929, film 1931). Sturges moved (1932) to Hollywood and began to turn out screenplays, both for dramas and sparkling comedies. He debuted as a director with the screwball comedy The Great McGinty (1940), which he also wrote, and for which he won the best original screenplay Oscar. Sturges satirized many sacred cows in the witty, unsentimental, and stylish movies he wrote and directed during the 1940s. Among them are Sullivan's Travels (1941), widely considered his masterpiece; The Lady Eve (1941); I Married a Witch (1942); The Palm Beach Story (1942); Hail the Conquering Hero (1944); and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). After the successful Unfaithfully Yours (1948), his career faltered, and his subsequent films were few and undistinguished. After falling into relative obscurity, his romantic comedies were rediscovered in the 1970s, and he is now hailed as one of Hollywood's finest and most influential comic talents.

See his memoirs, ed. by his wife, Sandy Sturges (1990); biographies by J. Curtis (1982), D. Spoto (1990), and D. Jacobs (1992).

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"Sturges, Preston." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 10 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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