THE FIRST CROWD in the history of Times Square gathered on the east side of Broadway between 44th and 45th Streets on November 25, 1895. That night, Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Theatre was opening up, and Hammerstein, the first of Times Square’s masters of shameless hyperbole, was going only slightly overboard when he billed the Olympia as “the grandest amusement temple in the world.” Perhaps he used that quaint expression because no word had yet come into the language to describe the vast miscellany that was the Olympia—music hall, concert hall, and theater, all spread out over an entire city block. The entire range of culture, from the most popular to the most refined, would be housed under a single roof. The Olympia bore some resemblance to a Coney Island amusement park, and some resemblance to Madison Square Garden, the leviathan on 26th Street; but it is safe to say that the first theater ever built in Times Square looked like nothing the world had ever seen before. It was a bad idea on a monumental scale.

Hammerstein was himself as various and as contradictory as the Olympia: an orthodox Jew, a practical joker, a reckless plunger into dubious enterprises. He was a short, portly character who always waved a cigar and wore a silk hat tipped back on his head. Hammerstein earned his first fortune inventing gizmos for cigars—a roller, a header, a cutter, a device that molded twelve stogies at once. He was an incessant tinkerer and inventor. But he was also a cultured man with a real love, and a modest gift, for music, which he once demonstrated in characteristic fashion by composing an opera in twenty-four hours on a bet. Hammerstein seems to have plowed his entire fortune into Broadway without a second thought. In 1892 he built the Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street, a populist rival to the aristocratic Metropolitan Opera. He and his partners split after Hammerstein loudly booed a singer he hadn’t wanted to appear, and then got into a fistfight with the woman’s paramour, which landed them both in the precinct house. Hammerstein then cashed out of the opera house, spent $850,000, most of it borrowed, to buy the property along Broadway, and commenced to build his immense, portholed palace of culture.

The Olympia was situated squarely in terra incognita. At the time, the electric lights that ran up Broadway stopped at 42nd Street. The corner of 42nd and Broadway was already a bustling commercial area by the end of the century, thanks to the convergence of north–south and east–west trolley lines, as well as the Ninth Avenue el to the west; but the area north of 42nd consisted mostly of cheap boardinghouses, tenements, factories, whorehouses, and dance halls. The neighborhood would also have smelled very strongly of horse: with Central Park just to the north, the West Forties were full of stables and of shops that sold and repaired carriages. The area was popularly known as Longacre Square, after a similar district in London. The eastern side of Broadway, which then centered on the 71st Armory building, was known as the Thieves’ Lair.

Hammerstein’s Olympia—it was never just “the Olympia”—was a work of pharaonic ambition. The Music Hall had 124 boxes ascending in eleven tiers, while the Theatre had eighty-four boxes (more than the Metropolitan). The color schemes of the three houses were red and gold, blue and gold, and cream and gold. Hammerstein was said to have spent $600,000 on his folly. No theater opening had been so eagerly awaited in years, and that November night, Hammerstein had sold ten thousand tickets; unfortunately, the Olympia had only six thousand seats. So, half the crowd gained entrance, while the other half, in the first recorded fiasco in Times Square, “slid through the mud and slush of Longacre back into the ranks of Cosmopolis,” according to The New York Times. Later that evening, the crowd of swells, in crinoline and patent leather, formed themselves into a giant flying wedge and broke down the doors. It was not a good portent: Hammerstein had never really figured out how he could make back his immense investment, and within two years he had lost control of the Olympia; in 1898, he declared bankruptcy. But for Hammerstein, as for so many of the men who would come after him, disaster was a mere inconvenience; he bounced back almost as soon as he hit the pavement.

NEW YORK CITY in 1900 was, to a degree unimaginable today, the imperial capital of turn-of-the-century America. As J. P. Morgan and a handful of other New York financiers concentrated corporate power in their own hands, New York came to occupy the commanding heights of the emerging twentieth-century economy. By the early years of the century, 70 percent of corporate headquarters and 69 of the 185 trusts, or combines, being forged by Morgan and his colleagues were based in New York City; two-thirds of imports and two-fifths of exports flowed through its docks. Wall Street financed the growth of the nation’s railroads and industries—and, increasingly, those of other nations. New York became a city of millionaires as well as a magnet for the millionaires of the Chicago stockyards and the Colorado mines and the Texas oilfields.

At the same time, the city was undergoing a radical physical transformation. Immigrants had been pouring into New York since the early 1880s, filling lower Manhattan and pushing existing residents uptown and into Brooklyn. On December 31, 1897, at midnight, Greater New York was born—a new city joining Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. In the wake of “consolidation,” as this process was called, the population of New York, which until that moment had consisted only of Manhattan, more than doubled, to 3.4 million. New York was now three times the size of Chicago, its nearest American rival, bigger than Paris, and gaining rapidly on London for the title of the world’s largest city. New York was suddenly every bit as great in fact as its citizens had always thought it to be.

The astonishing array of public works and private projects unleashed by consolidation forged the new city into a single great metropolis and bound it far more tightly to the larger world. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the city built the Queensboro, Williamsburg, and Manhattan Bridges to link Manhattan with Brooklyn and Queens; financiers built Penn Station as well as the colossal tunnel under the Hudson that brought trains directly from New Jersey. (Travelers until then had had to dismount and board a ferry.) Beginning in 1907, a new and grandiose version of Grand Central Terminal began to bring commuters to the heart of Manhattan; by 1913 the trains and the terminal had been converted from steam to the far cleaner and more efficient electrical power. And, most important of all, in 1904 the city completed the first stage of its monumental subway system, which enabled New Yorkers to go from one end of the city to the other in scarcely more than an hour.

City planners had talked about building an underground rail line almost from the time of the advent of elevated trains, in the late 1860s. By the time the idea had become practicable, in the mid-nineties, it was clear that the new transit system would have to link the downtown business district with Grand Central, and then carry passengers to the new residential areas of the Upper East and West Sides. Since Grand Central was already on the East Side, the subways would need a transverse line to serve the West. Thanks to an 1857 municipal ordinance forbidding the use of steam power below 42nd, Commodore Vanderbilt had located his original commuter rail terminal, built in 1869, just north of that street. What’s more, 42nd Street was one of the broad crosstown streets designated by the 1811 plan, so it already served mass transportation, with a trolley line running east and west. For these reasons, the transverse line would run across 42nd to Broadway before heading uptown. And that is why, in October 1904, when the underground system began to operate, the new subway station at 42nd and Broadway became one of the twin pivots or junctions at the heart of the subway system—indeed, of the much larger system of bridges, tunnels, train stations, and roadways that was just then beginning to allow millions of people to move swiftly and efficiently into, out of, and around New York.

Urban geography, real estate dynamics, and public transportation all worked together to make Times Square the city’s latest rialto; but the fact that it became so much more probably has a fair amount to do with The New York Times. In 1902, Adolph Ochs, the Times’s owner and publisher, purchased the tiny triangular plot of land at the point where Seventh Avenue and Broadway cross at 42nd Street. He bought the property from his friend and financial backer August Belmont, who was then in the midst of building the subway under contract to the city. Ochs’s decision to locate a burgeoning enterprise inside such a skinny structure was almost as absurd as Hammerstein’s—the Times would be forced to move again in 1913— but Ochs may well have understood that the new subway system would turn 42nd and Broadway into the center of town. The Times Tower was the second-tallest building in New York, a 375-foot marble-and-limestone needle based on Giotto’s campanile for the Duomo in Florence. The building was said to be visible from eight miles away—an “X” that marked the center from which the great, growing city radiated. As the building was going up, Belmont, who had a financial interest in the Times, proposed to Mayor McClellan that both the neighborhood and the subway station be named for the newspaper, as Herald Square already was. And it was done: on April 8, 1904, the mayor proclaimed that Longacre Square would henceforth be known as Times Square.

Ochs, like Hammerstein—and like Rudolph Aronson, for that matter—was a German Jewish immigrant with a flair for ballyhoo; he became the very first entrepreneur to market his Times Square location. That first year, Ochs held a giant outdoor New Year’s Eve party featuring a fireworks display at the Times Tower. The account of the festivities in The Times the following day emphasizes the symbolic importance of the event: “From base to dome,” the paper reported, “the giant structure was alight—a torch to usher in the newborn, a funeral pyre for the old, which pierced the very heavens.” The crowd, pouring in through the new subway system, was estimated at 200,000, and the tremendous roar they made at midnight with their rattles and noisemakers could be heard miles away. Three years later, the fireworks display having been banned, Ochs dreamed up the idea of dropping an electric ball from the top of the building, an ingenious bit of publicity that swelled the New Year’s Eve crowd yet further. Times Square quickly became New York’s agora, a place to gather both to await great tidings and to celebrate them, whether a World Series or a presidential election. In the minds of New Yorkers, Americans, and people all over the world, Times Square became associated with a particular kind of crowd—a happy crowd, made up of merrymakers rather than troublemakers.

THE OLYMPIA HAD BEEN a folly, a giant ocean liner moored in a remote backwater. Hammerstein’s next move showed a much shrewder sense of the emerging market. In 1899 he scraped together $80,000 to build the Victoria Theatre, a slapdash structure of secondhand bricks and scavenged lumber on the northwest corner of 42nd and Broadway. Hammerstein stuffed rubbish in the empty spaces between floors or within walls, and bought carpeting from a defunct liner for 25 cents a yard. For the first few years, he offered high-minded drama such as Henri Bataille and Michael Morton’s Resurrection, based on the novel by Tolstoy. But with such fine new theaters as the New Amsterdam, the Lyric, and the Liberty suddenly surrounding him on 42nd Street, he decided to explore the lower reaches of the market. In February 1904, Hammerstein announced that he was going vaudeville. It was an appropriate change, both commercially and symbolically. An estimated five million people passed through the Times Square subway station in its first year of operation. Those vast crowds were making Times Square radically different from any of its predecessors—more crowded, more turbulent and volatile, more democratic. Men and women, the middle class and the poor, were all flung together on the subway, as they were in the other rising institutions of the early part of the century—the department store, the office building. Barriers that had long seemed impermeable, and that had been treated as moral principles, were rapidly being lowered, if scarcely eliminated.

And then there were the facts of urban geography. Times Square could never be as genteel as Madison Square had been. Madison Square was, after all, a park, a grassy spot with fountains and flowers and tables, which in turn attracted the city’s finest hotels and theaters and restaurants. Times Square, by contrast, was a great, eddying mass of people and vehicles, already, in the early years of the century, said to be the busiest street corner in the world. And so the ethos of Times Square always included a glorification of the inevitable mixing. The restaurateur George Rector liked to say, only a little bit hyperbolically, that his establishment attracted both Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred and O. Henry’s Four Million.

Oscar turned the Victoria over to his son Willie, who had learned the vaudeville trade from the famous agent William Morris. At first Willie featured top-billing vaudeville stars like Eva Tanguay and Nora Bayes. But Willie, who seems to have shared his father’s gift for populist entertainment but not his loftier aspirations, continued further down the path of least resistance. Soon the Victoria, which charged 25 cents a ticket, was showcasing acts like Don the Talking Dog, the Man with the Seventeen-Foot Beard, and the Cherry Sisters, billed as “America’s Worst Act”; Willie posted a net to catch the fruits and vegetables that audience members were encouraged to throw at the girls. Willie combined the roofs of the Victoria and the neighboring Republic Theater, which Oscar had built in 1900 (and which lives today as the New Victory Theater), to form the Paradise Roof Garden, which featured a “Dutch farm” with comely milk-maids and real cows. Later on, he installed “Mock’s Corner,” a jury of monkeys who provided a running commentary on the performers’ work. Willie himself was a gloomy and apparently charmless character who was quite content playing cards with the stagehands, but he had a Barnum-like gift for inspired flimflam: in the hottest days of the summer he placed a thermometer conspicuously on top of a block of ice, its low temperature demonstrating the virtues of the theater’s “air-cooling” system.

Willie understood that the daily newspapers, which were exploding both in number and in circulation, had created an insatiable appetite for scandal. He invented what was known as the freak or nut act, which the vaudeville authority Joe Laurie, Jr., describes as an engagement “made with the deliberate object of promotion, the financial profit being secondary”—the ultimate object being to expand the vaudeville audience by playing on the news of the day. Willie specialized in female murderers or would-be murderers, including two women who had shot a socialite and whom he billed as “The Shooting Stars.” After Harry Thaw killed Stanford White, Willie hired Evelyn Nesbit at an unheard-of $3,500 a week to do some dancing. He booked the wife of Lord Hope, who owned the Hope Diamond, and then paid Lord Hope $1,500 a week to stand in the Victoria lobby during performances. Willie’s greatest genius was in the manufacture of publicity. In 1905 he persuaded an itinerant Swiss sketch artist to pretend to be court artist to the Turkish sultan, hired three women as his wives, and then orchestrated a massive publicity campaign for Abdul Kardar and His Three Wives; Willie arranged to have the troupe detained by customs, and then furiously petitioned for their release. Three years later he repeated the gag, booking the famous Gertrude Hoffman to play Salome, and then arranging to have her arrested for indecency.

The Victoria was scarcely Times Square’s only great experiment in popular culture; the Hippodrome, on Sixth Avenue at 44th, offered fantastic extravaganzas to six thousand spectators at a time. But the Victoria, located literally on top of the Times Square subway, offered entertainment that even an unlettered immigrant could enjoy—and it was identifiably American, unlike the Yiddish or Chinese or German theater downtown. You could teach yourself English at the Victoria, and you could keep up with the news of the day. Willie never lost contact with his audience. Joe Laurie, Jr., says that in its seventeen years of operation the Victoria grossed $20 million, of which $5 million was profit.

Almost directly across the street from the most tumbledown and loutish theater in Times Square lay the most beautiful and refined theater in Times Square—indeed, in the country. The New Amsterdam, designed by two gifted young architects, Henry B. Herts and Hugh Tallant, and completed in 1903, was the first example in the United States of art nouveau design, from the horticulturally accurate roses carved into the woodwork to the Shakespearean figures peering from jade-colored terracotta balustrades to the great mural over the proscenium illustrating the progress of the arts. The sinuous line and stripped-down ornamentation of art nouveau was the very look of modernity for the forward-thinking aesthetes of the early years of the century, and the New Amsterdam was considered a building of the first importance—a building that might well “mark an epoch in the history of art,” as one penetrating if breathless account put it. This was also, of course, an era of opulence and show, and the New Amsterdam was intended to dazzle even the most blasé theatergoer. The gentlemen’s retiring room featured a “fireplace of Caen stone, floor of Welsh quarry tiling, wainscot of nut-brown English oak,” while that of the ladies was rendered “in tones of the tea rose, with decorations and carvings of conventionalized roses with leaves and stems entwined.”

Opening night was a magnificent affair, with carriages disgorging a steady stream of men in top hats and tails and women in furs and long gowns. The New Amsterdam’s owners, Marc Klaw and Abe Erlanger, two of the most powerful men on Broadway, had chosen to open with A Midsummer Night’s Dream—an apt choice, for the architects had said that they intended to evoke that play’s sense of magic. And indeed, one critic who attended the opening described the theater as “the most airy, fairy beautiful thing in the way of a playhouse that the New York public has ever seen.” The play, on the other hand, received fairly poor reviews, and gave way after three weeks to Mother Goose, a Christmas pantomime. Soon the New Amsterdam was showing dopey musicals like Miss Dolly Dollars. In fact, nothing produced at the New Amsterdam during the first decade of its existence demonstrated anything like the creativity and daring of the building itself. Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow was a huge hit in 1907–1908, and set off a waltz craze that lasted for several years; but their other big successes were mostly harmless froth.

By 1910, the passion for playgoing had reached such a pitch that forty first-class theaters were operating in and around Times Square; and yet few, if any, of them showed more distinguished fare than the New Amsterdam. A combination of stifling Victorian respectability and the absence of a sophisticated urban culture ensured an endless tide of mediocrity. Though figures like Dreiser and Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Stephen Crane were forging a new kind of American literature at the time, Broadway showed no interest in their work. The art of playwriting, and for that matter the etiquette of theatergoing, remained stuck in the high artifice of the Gay Nineties. Audiences hissed the villain and shouted warnings to the endangered hero. Though Klaw and Erlanger had the courage to show Peer Gynt at the New Amsterdam, Ibsen, like Shaw and Strindberg, was generally considered either too difficult or too wicked for Broadway. Probably the most important theatrical development of those early years was the rise of George M. Cohan, a veteran of vaudeville who turned out the first truly American musicals—Little Johnny Jones, George Washington, Jr., and others, which featured rousing, foot-stomping tunes, among them “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Yankee Doodle Boy,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

Broadway in the early years of the century was a factory, just as Hollywood was to become several decades later. Theater—whether vaudeville, operetta, or melodrama—was the popular culture of the day, and people all over the country demanded performers and productions “direct from Broadway.” In the 1890s, managers of theaters from across the country would sit in the saloons of Union Square dickering with producers for the rights to put on shows. Often, to be on the safe side, they would book two shows for the same period; or the producers would promise the same troupe to two different managers. Out of this chaos came a centralized booking organization known as the Syndicate, a partnership among six of Broadway’s leading producers. The Syndicate’s members owned theaters in New York and elsewhere, but its real power came from its control over the contracts of Broadway performers. If you wanted to book a Broadway show, you had to pay court to Abe Erlanger and Marc Klaw, who dominated the organization, and thus much of American theater, from their offices in the New Amsterdam. By 1905, Erlanger and Klaw were said to control 1,250 of the country’s 3,500 theaters, including almost all the first-class ones. Thereafter, a group of brothers from Syracuse, the Shuberts, began to build up a rival chain of their own, forging alliances with powerhouses like the producer David Belasco. Small-town theaters would “go Shubert,” or “go Syndicate,” until the twenties, when the Shuberts gained dominance (just in time to see the movies and radio degrade the value of their monopoly). The one thing that didn’t change was Broadway’s control over “the road.”

Broadway exercised a similar, but even more all-encompassing, control over vaudeville. In 1906, two vaudeville operators, B. F. Keith and E. F. Albee, incorporated the United Booking Office in Maine, which operated according to the same principles as the Syndicate. The Keith-Albee combine soon came to control virtually the entire vaudeville circuit east of Chicago. A rival circuit, the Orpheum, dominated vaudeville in the western half of the country. In 1913, Martin Beck, who ran the Orpheum circuit, built the Palace, Broadway’s vaudeville house nonpareil. Keith and Albee almost immediately wrested control of the Palace from Beck and moved their office to the theater’s sixth floor, which for many years thereafter remained vaudeville’s epicenter. The UBO’s bookers manned twenty desks on the floor, each responsible for a group of theaters in a particular part of the country. It was the bookers who composed the actual lineup of acts for the theaters, so vaudeville agents would hop from desk to desk, peddling their talent. In its own domain, the UBO exercised a supremacy no less complete than that of the steel trust. Vaudeville acts that declined a salary offer, or played at rival houses, or even played at Keith-Albee theaters through rival booking offices, put their careers in mortal peril. On the other hand, the Keith-Albee monopoly ensured that theatergoers in Kankakee or Altoona would see honest-to-God Broadway vaudeville.

TIMES SQUARE WAS, from the very beginning, a “theatrical” environment—a place that not only had theaters but was a theater. It was lit up by electric lights, and it throbbed with life until the early hours of the morning. It was vastly bigger, grander, and gaudier than Union Square, vastly more vivid and heterogeneous than Madison Square. The area was choked with actors, chorus girls, street urchins, newspapermen, gamblers, Wall Street barons, first-nighters in silk hats, and Fifth Avenue ladies in long gowns. Theater people gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Knickerbocker Hotel on the southeast corner of 42nd and Broadway, and at the Knickerbocker’s famous bar. The side streets to the east and west of Broadway were jammed with saloons, cheap hotels, and whorehouses, which serviced both the longshoremen who worked and lived in Hell’s Kitchen, to the west, and the tourists who poured in from all over. Times Square offered something for everyone.

In many ways, the most thrilling environments on Broadway in the early years of the century—the most theatrical ones—were not theaters, but restaurants. These were the “lobster palaces” of Times Square: Rector’s, Reisenweber’s, Bustanoby’s, Murray’s Roman Gardens. The lobster palaces were temples to the god of conspicuous consumption, where the freshly minted millionaires of the age went to flaunt their wealth by eating staggering meals and leave staggering tips; a headwaiter might clear upwards of $15,000 during the holidays. The settings were strictly Gilded Lily. The downstairs dining room at Rector’s, which accommodated one hundred tables, featured floor-to-ceiling mirrors and Louis XIV furnishings; both the table linen and the cutlery bore the “Rector griffin.” The Café Maxim, at 38th and Broadway, clad its waiters in its own version of Louis XIV: ruffled shirts, black satin knee breeches, silk stockings, pumps with silver buckles. Most of the dining rooms were below ground level, so that the patron reached his table via a grand stairway. The producer and impresario Florenz Ziegfeld had popularized the triumphal entry, with huzzahs and bravos and trumpet flourishes and bowing and scraping. Here the man about town with the actress of the day on his arm, or the budding plutocrat and his wife, could make just such an entrance, usually accompanied by the house orchestra. Here every man could be the star of his own drama.

This was an era of epic eating, when the plutocrat, like the Hawaiian prince, demonstrated his wealth by the dimensions of his belly. Diamond Jim Brady became one of the great celebrities of the age simply by out-eating everyone around him. Brady once explained his philosophy of dining by saying that he started each meal with his stomach four inches from the table and ate until the two made contact. When Diamond Jim returned from Paris with a mania for filet de sole Marguery, George Rector’s father sent him off to France to learn how to prepare the dish. When Rector returned two years later, a virtuoso of sole, he was met at New York harbor by Diamond Jim and Rector’s Russian orchestra. Whisked directly to the kitchen, he prepared perhaps the single most famous meal of an age famous for its meals. Diamond Jim was joined by Sam Shubert, the theatrical impresario; Marshall Field, the department store magnate; Adolphus Busch, the brewer; and the composers Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa. Diamond Jim pronounced himself ecstatic.

The Rectors had made a fortune running the only restaurant permitted at the Chicago Exposition of 1893; the family was already well established by the time it opened its ornate palace, in September 1899, on the east side of Broadway between 43rd and 44th, immediately south of Hammerstein’s Olympia. Rector’s was the first, and the greatest, of the lobster palaces. (Rector claimed to have been the first to actually serve lobster, their signature dish.) Despite the magnificent setting, Rector’s offered a vastly headier social milieu than the stodgy world of Delmonico’s. Everyone who mattered dined at Rector’s—the Floradora Girls and their cattle-baron escorts, O. Henry and Stephen Crane, Oscar Hammerstein and the Whitneys, Diamond Jim and Lillian Russell. There was gambling in the private dining rooms in the rear, and manic stock speculating—it appears to have amounted almost to the same activity—at the tables upstairs and down. Whatever news there was on Broadway could always be gleaned among the tables at Rector’s. In his memoirs—for restaurateurs then were at least as celebrated as ours are today—George Rector says, “It was the cathedral of froth, where New York chased the rainbow, and the butterfly netted the entomologist. It was the national museum of habits, the bourse of gossip, and the clearing house of rumors.”

At a time when the theater itself was almost absurdly stylized, dining was a kind of free-form drawing-room comedy; and as the hour drew later, the drama became more intimate and more risqué. The light posttheater supper came to symbolize the sophistication, and the nocturnal habits, of the Broadway crowd. The stage door Johnny, the young swain or incorrigible roué besotted with an actress or chorus girl, was expected to preen with his catch in the racy setting of the Broadway restaurant. This late meal was widely known as the Bird and a Bottle, the “bird” standing both for the meal and the young lady. Chorus girl was, in fact, the principal dish served at the lobster palaces, at least late at night. Many of the restaurants kept rooms upstairs so that the gentleman need not suffer the inconvenience of a hotel. Murray’s Roman Gardens, a palatial setting that would have made Nero blush, offered “24 luxuriously furnished and richly appointed bachelor apartments.”

This entire world of gargantuan meals, corpulent men, and stolen kisses would come to seem thoroughly archaic to the next generation, who scarcely felt the leaden hand of the Victorian past. And yet the very publicness of these pleasures, the variety of the crowd, was something quite new. Back in the Gay Nineties, Stanford White had held private orgies in the damask-draped splendor of his private aerie in the tower of Madison Square Garden. Now the man of means could satisfy his appetites in full view of the world (if not of his wife). A new, unashamed morality was brewing in the democratic and ungoverned climate of Times Square.

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