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Robert Treuhaft, 89; Crusading Attorney


Robert E. Treuhaft, crusading civil rights activist and attorney whose long-standing criticism of the funeral industry helped develop his late wife Jessica Mitford's scathing bestseller "The American Way of Death," has died. He was 89.

Treuhaft, widowed by Mitford's death in 1996, died Sunday in New York City after a brief illness.

So liberal he belonged to and served as attorney for the Communist Party of the U.S.A. for many years, Treuhaft made a habit of defending the civil rights of groups ranging from the Black Panther Party to Vietnam War draft resisters and members of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement.

Born to immigrant Jewish parents in New York City, Treuhaft studied law at Harvard and worked with and for the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. Later, his intellectual but humorous parrying with members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in their red-baiting hearings of the 1950s became legendary. He took a certain pride in the committee's listing him as one of the most "dangerously subversive" lawyers in the country.

Treuhaft worked in the legal department for the Office of Price Administration in Washington, D.C., during World War II. There he met the British-born noblewoman Mitford, by then a war widow and single mother of a young daughter.

Smitten by "this immensely attractive young woman in a black dress," Treuhaft pursued her and, when she transferred to the San Francisco office, he followed. They married in Santa Rosa in 1943.

Known for their outrageous wit, keen intelligence and intense social consciousness, they often attributed their long and happy marriage to a shared sense of fun, along with their mutual political views and civil rights goals.

Their home in Oakland was for years a gathering place for the San Francisco Bay Area's progressive political set and was known as a salon for the discussion of international politics and literature.

Devoted to the concepts of communism, they were strong advocates of human rights, and resigned from the Communist Party in 1958, shortly after Nikita Khrushchev conceded Josef Stalin's murderous record as head of the Soviet Union. Treuhaft said the information about Stalin, whom they had idealized, came as a "staggering blow."

Treuhaft, who established a law practice in Oakland, served on the board of the Consumers Cooperative of Berkeley and was a founding director of the Bay Area Funeral Society.

He used knowledge gained through that role to criticize undertakers for lax self-regulation and price gouging.

His research, coupled with that of his wife, who had become a muckraking journalist, led to publication of her 1963 expose of the funeral industry, "The American Way of Death."

Witty and startling in its revelations, the book remained on bestseller lists for nearly a year and revolutionized thinking about funerals, burials and cremations.

In 1976, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Treuhaft to the state Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, and Treuhaft used the position to continue working for reform.

He helped research other books by Mitford, and, after her death, completed her last, "The American Way of Death Revisited." He was assisting with a book of her letters still to be published.

Karen Leonard, Treuhaft's researcher, described him and Mitford for the San Francisco Chronicle as storybook characters, noting, "It was just like Alice in Wonderland. . . . She was the Cheshire Cat, and he was the Mad Hatter."

Treuhaft is survived by his stepdaughter, Constancia Romilly, and son, Benjamin.

A memorial service is planned for next year in the Bay Area. Treuhaft specified that any memorial donations be sent to the "Send a Piana to Havana" project, 39 E. 7th St., New York, N.Y. 10003. The project was started by son Benjamin Treuhaft, a piano tuner, after he was prevented by the State Department from taking a piano to Fidel Castro's economically embargoed island.

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