Albion Monitor /Features


Comrade in Arms

by Laura McCreery

Sort of a classic left-wing intellectual, but funnier

Moving through the cafeteria line one day in 1942, Jessica Mitford picked up each item she wanted and consumed it on the spot, neatly depositing the empty plates and glasses under the counter as she went. By the time she and her lunch companion Bob Treuhaft reached the cashier, her order consisted of a cup of coffee. The total charge for lunch: five cents.

Bob could not help but be impressed by the thrifty ways of his new acquaintance. "This, I decided, was the girl for me."

The story of Bob Treuhaft is the story of a man who slowly and pretty much on his own developed a set of liberal values and a blueprint for action during his young adult years. He ended up far left of center politically -- and that's important to know about him -- sort of a classic left-wing intellectual, but funnier.

A shared vision so strong, a political commitment so deeply held that few fully comprehend it

Born in the Bronx in 1912 to Jewish immigrants from Hungary, he attended Harvard and later Harvard Law School, where he was uninvolved politically but was exposed to many new influences. Later, an apprenticeship with the general counsel of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union sparked his interest in labor and class struggles.

Dismayed by a 4-F exemption from military service, Bob sought another way to serve the growing war effort. He was soon hired as an enforcement attorney with the federal Office of Price Administration in Washington, D.C., and he started work there in 1941.

Decca, a young English war widow with an infant daughter, became an OPA investigator and was sometimes assigned to work with him. Soon the pair had altered the office floor plan to facilitate adjoining desks, and they became steeped in a shared world of price investigations, puns and politics.

Decca later related in her autobiography, A Fine Old Conflict, that Bob wrote a poem for her at about that time, and her heart "flipped."

Drink a drink to dauntless Decca,
OPA's black market wrecker.
Where there is no violation,
She supplies the provocation.
Smiling brightly, she avers,
"Je suis agente provocateuse."
With their jointly held leftist views and the backdrop of the war, the young couple found their conversations turning to the idea of fighting fascism by joining the Communist Party. But the Party operated in subterranean fashion in Washington, and ultimately they had to admit they didn't know how to break in.

This happy period was clouded when Decca became suspicious that Bob was interested in other romances. Abruptly she asked for a transfer to OPA's office in San Francisco. There she intended to create a new life for herself and her young daughter, fully independent of others for the first time in her 25 years. But Bob soon followed her, landing a job with the War Labor Board in San Francisco. They married in 1943.

This budding romance may have been like many another, fueled by the exuberance of youth and shared interests and the immediacy of the war. Yet something extraordinarily strong would bind this couple together over the years -- a shared vision so strong, a political commitment so deeply held that few would fully comprehend it.

When the educated, witty and thoroughly different Bob Treuhaft entered Jessica Mitford's life, their relationship also burned intensely, fueled by their great commitment to political activism. By then, however, Decca's experiences had brought her a strength and independence she did not have at the time of her first marriage.

"With Esmond, Decca ran away to be with him," says Fursland. "With Bob, she came over to California. She was creating a life for herself. She wanted Bob to be part of this life, but she didn't follow Bob, Bob followed her. I don't want to make too much of it, but that really describes the difference."

Civil rights and union attorney

Settling in San Francisco, Bob and Decca Treuhaft became active in the United Federal Workers Union. In contrast to their experience in Washington, they found the Communist Party in California -- or rather, it found them -- rather easily. They were invited to join by a friend in the union, and by 1944 they had become active in it and were attending weekly meetings.

"The Party operated on the principle of 'democratic centralism,' which meant that all members were required to study, discuss, and vote on all matters of policy," Decca later wrote in A Fine Old Conflict. "Once the decision had been taken, each member was bound by it, whether or not he or she personally agreed with it.

"It was indeed a matter of conform or get out, but this did not particularly bother me. I had regarded joining the Party as one of the most important decisions of my adult life. I loved and admired the people in it, and was more than willing to accept the leadership of those far more experienced than I. Furthermore, the principle of democratic centralism seemed to me essential to the functioning of a revolutionary organization in a hostile world."

Since the war's end, Bob had been with a firm of labor lawyers that built its reputation defending union leader Harry Bridges in his fight against deportation. In 1947, after the family moved from San Francisco to Oakland, California, Bob and a partner started their own labor law practice devoted to representing the poor and disenfranchised.

As one of only a few white lawyers to represent blacks, Bob earned little money. He gained a measure of local fame when he took on the case of Jerry Newson, a young black man accused of killing a white pharmacist and his assistant. A guilty verdict carrying a death sentence was appealed to the State Supreme Court, and two further trials ended in hung juries, at which the district attorney had to dismiss charges.

"My father was always a civil rights and union attorney -- very, very underpaid," says Constancia Romilly, now 54. "We grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood in Oakland. We only had one car, and we never had a new car."

Decca put the salary issue in context in an interview with Anthea Fursland. "I remember one time a thing showing the earnings from law practice of Bob's particular graduating class [at Harvard] -- say, 17 people earning over $100,000; X people earning between $50,000 and $100,000; and one person earning under $20,000. We knew exactly who'd brought the average down."

In the local press Bob was as a Red lawyer, while Decca was a Red lawyer's wife

As the 1940's progressed Bob and Decca added two sons to their family, while their daughter, Constancia Romilly, grew and flourished. Meanwhile, Decca served as executive secretary of the local chapter of the Civil Rights Congress from 1949 until it folded in 1956. Bob was the CRC's general counsel.

During these years Bob became known in the local press as a Red lawyer, while Decca was a Red lawyer's wife. Those terms were applied to them routinely in the papers -- even, heartlessly, when a tragic accident killed their older son in 1955 at age 10.

"Even when my brother was killed, the local papers said something like 'Red lawyer's son fatally injured,'" Constancia Romilly says. "My father was declared one of the most dangerous lawyers in Northern California," she adds, laughing. "How could he be dangerous?"

How, indeed? The gentle and affable Bob may be a formidable attorney and intellectual opponent, but dangerous just doesn't come to mind. After the HUAC hearings, one story goes, Bob's law partner heard an exchange between two policeman at Oakland's city hall.

"Do you think Treuhaft really wants to overthrow the government?" one asked.

"Well, no," the other responded. "but I think he wants to get somebody else to do it."

Their careers are thoroughly intertwined

When interviewed, Bob gives full and thoughtful attention to his topics, often revealing serious opinions deeply held. Yet the young and dashing black-haired charmer with the winning smile is still there underneath. His deep brown eyes reveal a twinkle of tender devotion when he discusses his wife, and though he may at first appear to be teasing -- when he says she took up writing because there was nothing else she could do, for example -- it doesn't take long to realize that he speaks of her career with great seriousness.

Decca's career, of course, has been thoroughly intertwined with his. Her turn to journalism in the early 1960's was at first incidental to his interests from his law practice.

"She's interested in everything my father does in his law practice. They have that kind of marriage where they discuss everything that happened," says Constancia Romilly. "I mean, he comes home every day and she grills him about every detail. He has to give a full report."

Bob delighted in his spouse's success and growing confidence following widespread acclaim for the American Way of Death.

"She developed very slowly a facility in speaking publicly. She worked very hard at being able to express herself publicly without any inhibitions. She always wrote out the things she was going to speak on -- she still does. She prepares very carefully."

"I thought [the changes] were wonderful," he says. "I didn't feel at all jealous or deprived. She always, for one thing, gave me full credit, even too much credit for my contribution to whatever she had written."

In the end, both Bob and Decca give each other extra credit and play down their own accomplishments. But the truth is that much of what they have done for the last 50-plus years has been done together. They remain partners in all things: their attraction to each other, their deeply held political beliefs and their ability to appreciate a five-cent lunch.

The Making of a Muckracker

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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