Robert Treuhaft

20 November 2001

Robert Edward Treuhaft, lawyer: born New York 8 August 1912; married 1943 Jessica Romilly (née Mitford, died 1996; one son, and one son deceased); died New York 11 November 2001.

Robert Treuhaft was a civil-rights activist, an indefatigable lawyer on behalf of difficult, seemingly hopeless causes, a foot-slogging, door- stepping, envelope-stuffing campaigner. He must be one of the few successful lawyers who, as his wife Jessica Mitford blithely reported to her mother-in-law, left his job because the firm's fees were too high.

Though his dedication was in earnest, Bob (or "Bau-awb", as "Decca" called him) never failed to see the ironies and follies of life: his head cocked to one side, his slanted black eyes bright with indignant amusement, he would offer, in a soft drawl, the devastating facts and figures that exposed the corruption of his target, be it the segregationist actions of a housing association, the prison warders in the state jails, or the fat cats in the funeral-parlour business.

He spent most of his life, since 1943, in the Bay Area of California, but remained recognisably a New Yorker: he was born in the Bronx in 1912, the son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary or Czechoslovakia (depending on the shifting border). His mother, Aranka, was a milliner who eventually opened a hat shop on Park Lane; she was then able to prod his father, Albin, who was working as a waiter, into part-ownership of a restaurant of Wall Street, where Bob's gourmet tastes were formed.

Four years after they married, in 1947, Bob and "Decca" moved to Oakland, where they kept a famously bustling open house for friends and fellow workers and family for half a century; their hospitality was celebrated – for Bob's huge, spicy casseroles, as well as for the detailed briefings on guests who were coming (followed by debriefings on those who had just left). Together they had developed a way of talking that oddly anticipated text messaging: a kind of staccato telegraph, based on plans and aims and jokes and nicknames long shared between them. Bob had something of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau combined: in this marriage, the dry wryness of the Bronx met the sparkle, malice and larkiness of the Mitfords and the result was a potent and brilliant chemical reaction.

His long life encompassed at least four historic cycles of American politics; he found himself – or rather, he chose to put himself – in the thick of the most stirring and idealistic struggles of the last century. In 1930, he won a scholarship to Harvard Law School, and was the first student from his high school, New Utrecht in Brooklyn, to do so; he roomed with the architect Bertram Goldberg, as "Harvard roomed Jews together in those days".

Through his mother, he began working on behalf of the International Ladies' Garment Worker's Union, where his political opinions began to form. Suffering from epilepsy, he was not accepted by the army when he volunteered in 1943, much to his disappointment; but it was at this time that he first met, in Washington DC, Jessica Mitford, who was a young widow with a small daughter, Constancia ("Dinky"): her husband, Esmond Romilly, had been shot down over Germany.

Decca moved to California, in 1943, where Bob followed her. He opened an office with Bert Edises, to specialise in labour law – the firm was known affectionately as Gallstones, Gruesome, Sewer & Odious. When a teenage shoeshine boy, Jerry Newsom, was about to go to the chair for murder, Bob, who was not a criminal advocate, transformed himself and took up the case, for no fee, and successfully fought for Newsom's reprieve through no fewer than three retrials until the police testimony was in shreds. There were plans to film the case: until recently, Bob was still in touch with the client whose life he had, literally, saved.

The Communist Party in California, which Bob Treuhaft and Jessica Mitford joined in the Forties, was primarily occupied with establishing the rights of workers to fair conditions, and of blacks to basic American citizenship. In 1953, he was summoned before the House of Un-American Activities Committee in California and branded as one of the most dangerous and subversive lawyers in the country. It was an episode that did not rattle him, or Decca for that matter: there are advantages in having aristocratic aplomb as well as a Jewish sense of humour. They finally left the Party in 1958, but continued to sing the "Internationale", together with "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and the Grace Darling song and other great ballads at any opportunity.

It was when Bob Treuhaft was representing the widows of longshoremen that he began to notice the profits undertakers were raking in (something that had also roused the indignation of Maud Pember Reeves, the great campaigner in the East End of London, in her 1913 classic Round About a Pound a Week). Treuhaft was the motive force behind Jessica Mitford's brilliantly merciless assault on the funeral trade, her best-selling The American Way of Death (1963), as she was the first to acknowledge.

The subject perfectly united his fervour on behalf of the economically exploited with her macabre sense of humour: until his death, morticians' luxury catalogues were still arriving at the Oakland house and making him harrumph (and chuckle) . The book helped shape legislation against profiteering, and Robert Kennedy was even influenced to choose a modest coffin for JFK. The American Way of Death was recently thoroughly revised and updated by Bob Treuhaft, as The American Way of Death Revisited, in 1998. They were both delighted that the cheapest, simplest coffin and rites came to be called, in the US, "a Jessica Mitford" funeral.

The Sixties found Treuhaft again at the centre of a new, different configuration of political protest, and as one of the most engaged and selfless defender of civil rights: from 1962 to 1978 he worked at his new law firm with Dobby Walker, campaigning on behalf of the East Bay Civil Rights Congress. Famously, he became the defence counsel for the demonstrators and sitters-in in the Berkeley protests, where he was himself arrested. He also structured many of his wife's star performances as a protester: as the sister of a Duchess she could always win headlines in America. On one occasion, she successfully refused to be fingerprinted; on another, she travelled (with him) to Mississippi in the campaign against segregation and was arrested; his legal experiences inform the argument of her fierce critique of the prison system, Kind and Usual Punishment (1973).

Well into his Eighties, Bob Treuhaft continued the struggle; his interest, attentiveness, and old-world courtesy helped many colleagues to succeed when they might have given up. One young black lawyer recalled, at the couple's 50th wedding anniversary, that Bob had pushed her and pushed her to persevere with law school. "You were the wings under my wings," she said. There was a spare room in the Oakland house, where I once sat down to write, and found myself suddenly at ease, inspired. I came down and told them; Bob told me it was the room where Maya Angelou had come to write too and where she had begun I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).

They were both unfailingly encouraging to younger friends, directly and by example: Bob especially had a real feeling for writers and styles of writing and his later years were shadowed by the deaths of Jill Tweedie and Sally Belfrage. But it gave Bob him immense pride and pleasure that J.K. Rowling called her daughter Jessica after Decca, her heroine.

In characteristic fighting spirit, he requested that all contributions in his memory should be given to the continuing Cuban sanction-busting campaign of his piano-tuner son, Benjamin Treuhaft: "Send a Piana to Havana", 39 East 7th Street, New York, NY 10003, USA.