ROBERT TREUHAFT was a civil-rights activist, an indefatigable lawyer on behalf of difficult, seemingly hopeless causes, a foot- slogging, door- stepping, envelope-stuffing campaigner. He must be one of the few successful lawyers who, as his wife Jessica Mitford blithely reported to her mother- in-law, left his job because the firm's fees were too high.
Though his dedication was in earnest, Bob (or "Bau-awb", as "Decca" called him) never failed to see the ironies and follies of life: his head cocked to one side, his slanted black eyes bright with indignant amusement, he would offer, in a soft drawl, the devastating facts and figures that exposed the corruption of his target, be it the segregationist actions of a housing association, the prison warders in the state jails, or the fat cats in the funeral-parlour business.
He spent most of his life, since 1943, in the Bay Area of California, but remained recognisably a New Yorker: he was born in the Bronx in 1912, the son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary or Czechoslovakia (depending on the shifting border). His mother, Aranka, was a milliner who eventually opened a hat shop on Park Lane; she was then able to prod his father, Albin, who was working as a waiter, into part-ownership of a restaurant of Wall Street, where Bob's gourmet tastes were formed.
Four years after they married, in 1947, Bob and "Decca" moved to Oakland, where they kept a famously bustling open house for friends and fellow workers and family for half a century; their hospitality was celebrated - for Bob's huge, spicy casseroles, as well as for the detailed briefings on guests who were coming (followed by debriefings on those who had just left). Together they had developed a way of talking that oddly anticipated text messaging: a kind of staccato telegraph, based on plans and aims and jokes and nicknames long shared between them. Bob had something of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau combined: in this marriage, the dry wryness of the Bronx met the sparkle, malice and larkiness of the Mitfords and the result was a potent and brilliant chemical reaction.
His long life encompassed at least four historic cycles of American politics; he found himself - or rather, he chose to put himself - in the thick of the most stirring and idealistic struggles of the last century. In 1930, he won a scholarship to Harvard Law School, and was the first student from his high school, New Utrecht in Brooklyn, to do so; he roomed with the architect Bertram Goldberg, as "Harvard roomed Jews together in those days".
Through his mother, he began working on behalf of the International Ladies' Garment Worker's Union, where his political opinions began to form. Suffering from epilepsy, he was not accepted by the army when he volunteered in 1943, much to his disappointment; but it was at this time that he first met, in Washington DC, Jessica Mitford, who was a young widow with a small daughter, Constancia ("Dinky"): her husband, Esmond Romilly, had been shot down over Germany.
Decca moved to California, in 1943, where Bob followed her. He opened an office with Bert Edises, to specialise in labour law - the firm was known affectionately as Gallstones, Gruesome, Sewer & Odious. When a teenage shoeshine boy, Jerry Newsom, was about to go to the chair for murder, Bob, who was not a criminal advocate, transformed himself and took up the case, for no fee, and successfully fought for Newsom's reprieve through no fewer than three retrials until the police testimony was in shreds. There were plans to film the case: until recently, Bob was still in touch with the client whose life he had, literally, saved.
The Communist Party in California, which Bob Treuhaft and Jessica Mitford joined in the Forties, was primarily occupied with establishing the rights of workers to fair conditions, and of blacks to basic American citizenship. In 1953, he …