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An adventurous life examined

She wrote numerous bestsellers, penned popular stories for the best papers, made a name for herself in radio, and survived a python attack so famous it became the stuff of an advertising campaign. Then, Eleanor Early was more or less forgotten by the public until Robert Bruns came across a collection of the Newton native's private papers.

``It intrigued me that she was not in any of the standard bibliographic sources . . . including Notable American Women, which was an attempt to make up for the fact that women were not included in standard biographies as much as men were," said Bruns, who lives in Natick. ``She influenced thousands of people's lives with her travel books . . . yet there is little record of her."

Bruns recently became senior reference librarian at Boston College's Burns Library in Chestnut Hill. There, he discovered a collection of Early's papers in the library archives, and grew curious. He knew of Early from her debut travel book, ``And This Is Boston!," published in 1930, as well as her locally famous New England Cook Book (1954), but through the collection he became immersed in her storied life.

What he found became the fodder for ``And This Is Eleanor Early!," an exhibition at the library that examines Early's photographs, letters, and published works. A companion display features another lost Newton treasure, Norumbega Park, the amusement park that once occupied the banks of the Charles River where the Boston Marriott Newton hotel now stands.

``Eleanor Early was born in Newton and grew up in Wellesley," said Bruns. ``Then she struck out on a career on her own in the 1910s. It took a brave soul to do that at that time. And she had an adventurous soul, and just went on these trips around the globe and wrote about them."

Defiance seems to be a binding thread in Early's life. Though her family wanted her to teach, and she did enroll in a program for kindergarten teachers at Miss Wheelock's College (now Wheelock College) , she headed straight for the local newspaper upon graduating in 1917.

``She became a cub reporter, but she couldn't even type. She would sneak over to a typing pool and have somebody type her story up for her and then she'd deliver it to the paper," said Bruns.

The travel writing started with an ``oh, yes I will"-style bang as well. ``She had made all the arrangements to go on a trip to Cuba with her sisters, and the editor of the paper where she was working told her if she went she would be fired," said Bruns.

Early went. She was fired as promised, and the adventures began there. For the next few decades, her travels would take her across the globe, from the Arctic to the Congo, during a time when travel for most people simply meant a trip to the beach.

During World War II, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she wrote articles and hosted a radio show directed at the many women who moved to the capital to fill government jobs vacated by men. Her last book, ``Washington Holiday," was published in 1955, and she continued to freelance until her death in 1969.

But it was Early's travel adventures, recounted in her books, that held thousands captive (so much so that she was often mobbed for autographs). ``Her books affected people," said Bruns.

And what were some of the tales she told? Well, there was the time a fellow from Boston chatted her up on a boat heading to Dominica. When they arrived, he invited Early and her two sisters to visit his estate. When they got there, the entire household was a fluster.

``All the help thought that he'd brought home someone to marry and they were all trying to figure out which one of the three sisters it was," said Bruns. ``But the Earlys, it turned out, were only there for lunch."

And then there was the python. ``She was on a wild boar hunt in either Trinidad or Tobago. It was night and they had to all get up in trees and wait for the boars to come by," explained Bruns. ``She was waiting up in a tree and this python slid up the tree and wrapped itself around her. She couldn't scream because it was pressing on her lungs. So she put on her flashlight and waved it around and, of course, she wasn't supposed to do this because it would scare away the wild boars."

Another member of the hunt caught on, ran over, whacked the python off her with a machete, and when the Ever-Ready Battery Co. heard about the incident, they ran an ad campaign noting just how important Early's flashlight batteries had been.

The print ad is in the exhibition, as is Early's International News Service (which later became the ``I" in UPI) identification card, and other personal effects.

``And This Is Eleanor Early!" runs through July 31 and ``The Robert Pollock Collection of Norumbega Park" runs through Sept. 5 at Boston College's Burns Library, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill. Free. Hours 9 a.m-5 p.m., Monday-Friday, and for groups by appointment. Call 617-552-3282 or visit www.bc.edu/events.

A TWIST OF THE BARD: What is it that makes cross-dressing seem so much more fun when it's done in iambic pentameter? For their fifth anniversary show, the Gazebo Players of Medfield are putting on a little summertime Shakespeare in the park, and there's plenty of gender confusion to go around.

First, there's Shakespeare's original plot for the comedy ``As You Like It," where Rosalind (who pines for Orlando ) dresses like a man after being banished to the woods, which, oddly, are populated with folks with romantic troubles. As you might expect, amorous mishaps abound.

Then, the Gazebo Players have their own twist. ``As happens with a number of small theater troupes on the fringe of Boston, more women turned out for the audition than men. And what the Gazebo Players usually do is cast women as men, but I decided to try something different this time," said the show's director, David Logan-Morrow.

The Rockland resident means he swapped genders on some of the minor roles, and fast-forwarded the setting to modern day. The gossip Le Beau is now a Hedda Hopper -esque Madame Le Beau, and so on.

This approach created, well, a few changes. For one, the two shepherds who fall in love and marry are now both played by women playing women. ``We're playing it as a gay relationship," said Logan-Morrow. ``Somebody said to me, `Well, gay marriage is legal in Massachusetts, so I guess it's OK to have a gay marriage in the play.' "

The players are not making much fuss about this aspect. Rather, they are more focused on the original music written for the piece by a Waltham composer and guitarist, Zane Kuchera (they hope to sell CDs of the music at the show). They're also proud that Medfield High School students Juliana Small (class of '10) and Michaela Weglinski ('09), who both performed in Gazebo's first production, will return as singing pages for this anniversary show.

And, they're just excited to finally put on the light-hearted love story that gave birth to the line ``All the world's a stage."

``The main force in this piece is love and happiness and fulfillment in relationships. At the very beginning of the play, it's somewhat dark and there's fighting and arguments and people get banished to the forest, but once they're off in the woods everything is fine," said Logan-Morrow. ``I'd say that Arden is a forest and even though it's filled with trees, the sun always shines. Love pervades."

``As You Like It" will be performed at 5 p.m. July 15, 16, 22, and 23 at the Medfield Gazebo, across from Town Hall, 459 Main St. Free. Rain location the Pfaff Center ( North and Dale streets). Visit www.gazeboplayers.com.

HOW MANY LIVES? ``Cats" is on the prowl again. A new national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's feline-studded smash hit will make its first stop in Waltham for two shows this weekend, hosted by the Reagle Players.

Based on poems by T.S. Eliot , the story follows a pride of junkyard cats as they party during a full moon.

In short, it's a lot of hugely entertaining song and dance with the added bonus of actors in cat suits.

This is a non-Equity tour (as opposed to the Actors' Equity Association tours out of Broadway), but it nonetheless comes with all the Broadway bells and whistles, from the famous set of giant trash cans to tap-dancing tabbies and Old Deuteronomy, the cat who has lived 999 lives.

``Those non-Equity companies are sometimes great training grounds for very talented performers. It should be a great show," said Reagle founder Bob Eagle.

``Cats" runs tomorrow and Saturday at the Robinson Theatre in Waltham High School, 617 Lexington St. Tickets are $35-$48, $1 off for seniors, $25 for ages 5-18. Call 781-891-5600 or visit www.reagleplayers.com.

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