Robert E. Treuhaft

Civil rights lawyer and inspiration behind the writings of
Jessica Mitford

QUIET and mild-mannered, Bob Treuhaft was a Harvard-trained lawyer who spent his career as an advocate for America’s underprivileged ranging from blacks to California’s longshoremen. He was a founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Funeral Society, and generations of liberal lawyers were groomed under his tutelage, including a young Yale law student named Hillary Rodham.

Above all, his was the guiding hand behind the books of his famous wife, Jessica Mitford, beginning with the memoir Hons and Rebels (1960). As Evelyn Waugh observed in a letter to Nancy Mitford: Did Decca write all the book herself? It seems by two hands, half fresh & funny if false and half trite & stodgy the first page of the last chapter, for instance; can she have written that? Nancy replied: Clever of you to see the two voices. I am quite certain much of it was written by Treuhaft who is a sharp little lawyer, and who certainly made her write it in the first place.

Jessica Mitford had met Treuhaft in Washington, after the death in action in 1941 of her first husband. Famously, she had run away to Spain in 1937 with Esmond Romilly, a cousin and Winston Churchill’s nephew. Romilly, a volunteer in the International Brigades, was reporting on the Spanish Civil War. Anthony Eden, as the story goes, dispatched a destroyer after them, which they eluded. They were married in Bayonne, France, and in 1939 they went to America. Two years later, Romilly, who had become a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, went missing during a bombing raid over Germany.

Mitford and Treuhaft met as colleagues in Roosevelt’s Office of Price Administration. Later, they transferred to the California branch office, and they married in 1943. It was in California that they became involved in the American Communist Party, through the East Bay Civil Rights Congress. In consequence of their politics, both Mitford and Treuhaft were targets of the McCarthyites in 1950s America. Treuhaft had once been listed as one of the most dangerously subversive lawyers in the country. As Mitford recalled in 1993: Bob was the general counsel in this area (Oakland, California) and I was the secretary and we worked together like mad all the time representing every aspect. The CRC was a militant defender of free speech and black rights. These were the things that put us at loggerheads with the powers that be.

But in 1958 the pair left the American Communist Party: Khrushchev’s denunciation of the crimes of Stalin had been influential in driving away lots of believers. And the Mitford/Treuhaft idea that the American Communist ideal should be an indigenous affair never took root.

While Mitford was alive the pair made annual visits to London, where they hosted friends in borrowed flats and served martinis and Treuhaft’s famous baked-bean casseroles.

Although from worlds diametrically opposed (Treuhaft, a Hungarian Jew, was the American-born son of working-class immigrants Mitford was a daughter of the 2nd Lord Redesdale), they discovered many interests in common. As Jonathan and Catherine Guinness wrote of them in The House of Mitford (1985): Their relationship eventually turned into a typically stable and affectionate Mitford marriage, its stability based on politics and jokes. Also, since Mitford was at sea in the kitchen, Bob Treuhaft minded the stove in addition to minding his law practice.

Jessica Mitford, whom The Economist called the world’s best-known campaigner against over-charging and malpractice in the funeral profession, wrote the runaway international bestseller, The American Way of Death in 1963. Subsequently, in 1984, the American Government introduced the Funeral Rule, a code of regulations to protect consumers.

At the time of her death Jessica Mitford had been updating the American Way of Death, and Treuhaft and a team of researchers posthumously published The American Way of Death, Revisited (1998).

In a 1993 interview Mitford had credited Treuhaft with the original book’s inspiration: Actually, it was Bob’s idea. He was a trade union lawyer who represented the longshoremen. He began to notice that whenever the breadwinner of the family died, the amount of the death benefits hard fought for through union struggle and intended for the widow and kids would mysteriously be the price of the funeral.

He got furious and started organising the Bay Area Funeral Society, a non-profit educational group which has also got a contract with an undertaker for a fraction of the price. I thought the whole thing was rather boring. We were robbed every day by the landlord and at the supermarkets, so why bother about the undertakers? Then Bob started bringing home the trade magazines like Casket and Sunnyside, Mortuary Management all those wonderful names so I began to study them.

The book, which began as an article, was first published in a small, liberal magazine in the Oakland area. Treuhaft had it reprinted in lots of 1,000 to give out for propaganda for the fun- eral society. Thereafter interest in it burgeoned.

Jessica Mitford died in 1996. She and Treuhaft had two sons, one of whom was killed in a bicycle accident at the age of ten. Robert Treuhaft is survived by their second son.

Robert E. Treuhaft, civil rights lawyer, was born in New York, on August 8, 1912. He died there on November 11, 2001, aged 89.