Robert Treuhaft

Robert Treuhaft

Robert Treuhaft, the son of Hungarian immigrants, was born in New York on 8th August 1912. He won a scholarship to Harvard University and later became a lawyer. He developed left-wing political views while working for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Treuhaft applied to join the U.S. Army but was rejected on medical grounds. Determined to seek work related to the war effort, he found work with the Office of Price Administration (OPA) in Washington. It was while at the OPA he met Jessica Mitford whose husband Esmond Romilly, had just been killed while on a flying mission over Nazi Germany.

Treuhaft and Mitford moved to California where they married in 1943. They both joined the American Communist Party and were active in the East Bay Civil Rights Congress (CRC). He eventually became regional general counsel of the CRC.

In 1948 Treuhaft moved to Oakland and joined the legal firm of Oakland, Grossman, Sawyer & Edises. The company specialized in trade union and civil rights cases as its clients included the Congress for Industrial Organisations and the American Communist Party.

Treuhaft and Mitford also became involved in the Willie McGee case. McGee, a 36-year-old black truck driver was convicted of raping a white woman despite evidence that the couple had been having a relationship for four years. The trial lasted less than a day and the jury took under three minutes to reach a verdict and the judge sentenced McGee to be executed. Treuhaft argued that no white had ever been condemned to death for rape in the deep South, while over the last forty years 51 blacks had been executed for this offence. Despite a nationwide campaign led by Bella Abzug McGee was executed on 8th May 1951.

Treuhaft's involvement in the Willie McGee case resulted in him being subpoenaed by the California State Committee on Un-American Activities. Treuhaft and Mitford took the 1st Amendment and refused to answer questions about their involvement in left-wing political groups. Two years later they were called before the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Once again they refused to give evidence and later Treuhaft was described by Joseph McCarthy as one if the most subversive lawyers in the country.

Over the next few years Treuhaft became increasingly disillusioned with the form of communism being developed in the Soviet Union. Shocked by the revelations about Joseph Stalin by Nikita Khrushchev and the Red Army invasion of Hungary, Treuhaft and Mitford left the American Communist Party in 1958.

As a trade union lawyer Treuhaft became aware of the financial problems that deaths caused in working class families. In an attempt to reduce the high costs of funerals he established the Bay Area Funeral Society, a non-profit undertaking service. In 1963 Treuhaft and Jessica Mitford published the best-selling book, The American Way of Death (1963). However, only Mitford's name appeared on the book cover as the publisher argued that "co-signed books never sell as well as those with one author."

Robert Treuhaft died in New York on 11th November 2001.