By Arthur Z. Schwartz
Ruth Berk, who would have turned 95 in August, passed the morning of June 8 at Beth Israel Hospital. The cause of death was heart failure, complicated by a stroke. Berk was a long time Village cultural figure. After an early career as an opera singer, she and her husband Leo ran the Waverly Lounge for many years, in what was then known as the Hotel Earle (now the Washington Square Hotel). Ruth became a cabaret singer, a fixture on the Village scene.
Ruth lived at 95 Christopher Street beginning in 1957. Leo died in 1980, and for most of Ruth’s life thereafter she was engaged in contentious lawsuits with her landlord, Lloyd Goldman of BLDG Management. In 1996 Judge Sarah Lee Evans awarded Berk $80,000 in rent abatements and attorneys’ fees, because of unaddressed, but needed repairs.
One of the more than 20 lawsuits between BLDG and Ruth, resulted in a Judge, Tanya Kennedy, deciding, in 2014, that Ruth belonged in a nursing home. By late 2014, with my aid, and some colorful courtroom appearances, Ruth had been freed of the nursing home, but had a guardian—me.
The NY Post described one of the Court appearances like this:
A 91-year-old former Broadway singer who was declared incompetent and tossed into a nursing home was returned to her Greenwich Village apartment—after wowing a Manhattan judge with her vocal talents.
Elderly songstress Ruth Berk sang the show tunes “Summertime” and “My Funny Valentine” to help convince Justice Tanya Kennedy that she was still fit to live there.
At her hearing, “although the justice refused to allow her to speak, [Berk] interrupted the court and told the court that she wanted to go home. She then began to sing for Justice Kennedy,” her lawyer, Arthur Schwartz, recounted in court papers.
Berk’s daughter, Jessica, said the judge was stunned at the impromptu performance … by her mom, whom she called “a cross between Bea Arthur and Elizabeth Taylor” in her younger years.
“[The judge] stepped off the bench, took [her] robe off and shook her hand and said, ‘Mrs. Berk, that was wonderful. Thank you very much for honoring me with that,’ ” Jessica, 55, told The Post.
In 2015, after I was arrested for taking down surveillance cameras which BLDG had installed to harass Ruth and her daughter Jessica, Ruth got to sing on NBC TV and even RT (Russia Television) did a song-filled segment. Ruth’s joy of singing was encouraged by her friend Robert Driscoll, who came to visit almost daily.
Ruth did eventually return to a nursing home, but only after her landlord paid her (and Jessica) $500,000 to leave. Right up to the end she regaled her fellow residents with “Summertime.”
Ruth’s death marks the passing of one more of the cultural figures who made “The Village” what it was. She was strong and persevering, a free spirit who stood up for her rights. We will all miss her.
Arthur Z. Schwartz served as Ruth Berk’s court appointed Guardian from 2015 till her death.