Ruth Berk, Village cabaret singer, dies at 94

Ruth Berk in 2015 singing at her piano with photos from her 1950s cabaret heyday. Photos by Lincoln Anderson

BY ARTHUR SCHWARTZ | Ruth Berk, who would have turned 95 in August, died Fri., June 8, at Beth Israel Hospital. The cause of death was heart failure, complicated by a stroke.

After an early career as an opera singer, Ruth Berk 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.

She lived in a penthouse apartment at 95 Christopher St. 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 apartment repairs.

In one of the more than 20 lawsuits, Judge Tanya Kennedy decided, in 2014, that Ruth Berk belonged in a nursing home. By late 2014, with the aid of Village attorney Arthur Schwartz, and some colorful courtroom appearances, Berk had been freed of the nursing home. Schwartz was appointed her guardian.

The New York Post described one of the court appearances:

“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 Schwartz was arrested for taking down hallway surveillance cameras that, he charged, BLDG had installed “to harass the Berks,” Ruth got to sing on NBC TV, and even RT (Russia Television) did a song-filled segment.

Ruth Berk 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 Berk’s funeral was Sun., June 9, at Greenwich Village Funeral Home, at 199 Bleecker St. She is survived by her daughter, Jessica, the founder of Residents in Distress a.k.a. RID.

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