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Fifteen years ago, Ellen Cassedy inherited an old bureau from her aunt, Jessie Sylvester. In that bureau she found a diary that inspired her to write a play, "Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn," which will be featured at the March 5 First Saturday event at the Brooklyn Museum.

Cassedy, who was born in Brooklyn Heights but now lives in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., told GO Brooklyn by phone, "My aunt started keeping the diary after she retired as a secretary in 1976. The diary covers two-and-a-half years in the late 1970s."

"Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn" is a one-act, one-woman show performed by actress Joanna Merlin in the role of Jessie Sylvester. It runs a little less than one hour, but in that time it faithfully chronicles not only the day-to-day life of Jessie Sylvester between the ages of 76 and 79, but also the "sounds and tastes of Brooklyn," says Cassedy.

"At first my aunt’s life seemed very small," said Cassedy. "I didn’t think that there’d be anything interesting about my aunt’s going to the grocery store, going to the Botanic Garden, going to visit her sister in the hospital. But I found myself mesmerized by what it is to lead a small, modest life as an elderly woman confronting the challenges of aging."

The daily routine of an ex-secretary was of particular interest to Cassedy, 55, who had founded 9 to 5, an organization of female office workers, in 1973 and had also written two books on the subject of women in the office.

"I’d always thought of my aunt as an average person," says Cassedy. "But I became deeply impressed by her survival strategies, her sense of dignity and what she had to teach me about how to live."

One of her aunt’s survival strategies was to join a senior center not far from her Flatbush home. At the senior center she took a course in poetry offered by Dr. Sondra "Sunny" Brandler. An especially affecting poem the class read was Walt Whitman’s "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and in the play, Cassedy weaves lines from Whitman’s poem into passages from her aunt’s diary to "enhance and ennoble her life and show we’re all part of a grand scheme."

Cassedy was able to track down Dr. Brandler, who is now an associate professor at the department of sociology, anthropology and social work of CUNY- College of Staten Island.

"She was amazed to hear she had had such an effect on my aunt," Cassedy recalls. "She remembered my aunt. But she didn’t realize she had touched her soul."

Cassedy, Brandler and Merlin will all be present after the performance for a question-and-answer session.

As a writer with a strong interest in "women whose voices are generally not heard," Cassedy feels very close to "Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn."

Said Cassedy, "It’s a very close-up, honest, unflinching portrait of the joys and sorrows of old age."


"Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn" will be performed at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights) on March 5 at 9 pm as part of the First Saturday program. All First Saturday events are free and open to the public. For more information, call (718) 638-5000 or visit

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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