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Guide to the Robert E. Treuhaft Papers TAM 664

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
10th Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2630
tamiment.wagner@nyu.edu


Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Erika Gottfried

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on July 09, 2018
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical/Biographical Note

Robert Edward Treuhaft, a radical left-wing attorney prominent in progressive and New Left politics in the San Francisco Bay Area, was born in the Bronx, New York City, in 1912, the oldest child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants. He attended public schools and became the first person from his Brooklyn high school to be admitted to Harvard University. He graduated from Harvard in 1934, and obtained a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1937. After graduation from law school he worked for a labor law firm in New York City for, whose clients included the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In 1941, he took a position in Washington, D.C., with the enforcement division of the wartime Office of Price Administration (OPA). At OPA, he met his future wife, Jessica Mitford Romilly (known as Decca Mitford, radical and rebellious daughter from a famously eccentric and conservative family of British aristocrats), who was also working at the agency. In 1943 Treuhaft left the OPA and moved to the West Coast to work for the War Labor Board's San Francisco office and to join Mitford, who had also taken a job in San Francisco. They married soon after their arrival to the Bay Area. In 1945, Treuhaft joined the law firm of Gladstein, Grossman, Sawyer & Edises. At Gladstein he represented West Coast labor unions expelled from the CIO as a result of accusations that they were Communist-led or dominated. A few years later he and Bertram Edises established their own firm. They became well-known as civil rights attorneys when they successfully defended, Jerry Newson, an 18-year-old African American man, against a framed-up murder charge. Treuhaft also acted as counsel for the East Bay Civil Rights Congress from 1949 to 1956, advocating for clients suffering racial discrimination and he brought pioneering police brutality suits against the Oakland Police department.

In 1963, Treuhaft and Doris "Dobby" Walker (a long-time friend and political ally of Treuhaft and Mitford's) founded their own law firm (through the years joined by different partners, beginning with Malcolm Burnstein, as well as numerous young associates and interns, including future Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during the summer of 1971). Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Treuhaft, Walker & Burnstein represented clients in civil rights cases (as well as handling more general law, such as wills and divorces, for clients among the African American and progressive communities in the area); they also became well-known for representing New Left organizations and activists. Treuhaft acted as counsel for the Free Speech Movement, representing the more than 700 students arrested at the University of California at Berkeley during a two-day sit-in in 1964. He himself was also arrested during the sit-in, at the direction of then- Assistant District Attorney of Alameda County, Edwin Meese, who later became Attorney General during the Reagan presidency. In addition, Treuhaft and his firm represented anti-Vietnam War protesters, Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and University of California students and town residents arrested during the struggle over People's Park in Berkeley. Treuhaft's expansive vision of civil liberties included child custody cases in which he defended clients whose parental rights being challenged on the basis of their cultural lifestyles. As part of his lifelong concern for the rights and welfare of ordinary citizens, Treuhaft became interested in consumer rights and protections. In 1962 he co-wrote a handbook for California lawyers on debtors' rights. When he became aware of deceptive practices by funeral homes he helped to found the Bay Area Funeral Society to serve as a model for simpler and less expensive funerals, and took a year's leave of absence from his law practice to research the topic more deeply. He also assisted his wife with writing The American Way of Death, an expose on the funeral industry based on his research. Published in 1963, the  The American Way of Death became an enormous (and to the Treuhafts, entirely unexpected) success, a bestselling book, and made Mitford--already a published writer--famous as a muckraking journalist, known for her special blend of investigative journalism with political satire. As a consequence of the publicity surrounding the  American Way of Death Treuhaft was appointed by California Governor Jerry Brown as a public member to the California State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers (much to the consternation of funeral directors throughout the country).

Treuhaft also participated in local and community politics. In 1966 he ran (and lost the race) for District Attorney for Alameda County against the longtime rightwing incumbent Frank Coakley. He served several terms on the board of the Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley (better known as the Berkeley Co-Op), a small group member-run supermarkets in the Bay Area, including one after a hotly-contested election campaign, in which he ran on a slate of progressives. He was also instrumental in getting the Co-Op board to pass a resolution cutting off its contributions to the national organization of co-operative stores, the Cooperative League of America, because it had accepted funds from the CIA.

In 1982, Treuhaft and Walker dissolved their partnership. From this time through his retirement in 1997 Treuhaft began to specialize in workers' compensation cases and appeals to the Social Security Administration. Robert Treuhaft was also active in progressive attorneys' organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild (he served as a vice president and was honored by it, along with Mitford, with a testimonial dinner in 1985). As a member of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) he served on an mission to Portugal in 1964 to investigate torture of political prisoners (as a result he and fellow commission members were arrested and expelled from the country by the authoritarian government of Antonio Salazar), and to Okinawa in 1969 to investigate human rights violations by the United States.

Treuhaft and Jessica Mitford joined the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) in 1943 and remained members until 1958. Treuhaft provided legal representation for "unfriendly" witnesses subpoenaed by the U.S. House of Representatives' Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He himself and Mitford were called to testify before the Committee in 1953. They refused to "name names," (that is, identify for the Committee their own or others' political affiliations or memberships). Treuhaft took issue publicly with those who did, including in a 1984 article in The Nation on his Harvard class' 50th reunion. As a consequence of this, and their other political activities the Treuhafts were constantly surveilled and frequently harassed by federal, state, and local government agencies, up to and including being denied passports.

Treuhaft and Mitford raised two children to adulthood—Benjamin, their second son (another son, Nicholas, died at age ten), and Constancia "Dinky" Romilly, Mitford's daughter from her first marriage. Jessica Mitford died in 1996. Treuhaft completed The American Way of Death Revisited (published 1998), the update of  The American Way of Death Mitford had been working on at the time of her death. Robert Treuhaft died on November 11, 2001.