I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Founded in 1872, the Bohemian Club was originally a gathering place for musicians, artists, and journalists―yes, the usual riff-raff. The motto on its door states “Weaving spiders come not here.” This is said to be a pledge that members do not talk about politics or business. That didn’t last long; The Washington Post now calls it the place “where the rich and powerful go to misbehave.”
What Is Bohemianism?
People who live unconventional lives are often referred to as Bohemian. Rebellion, eccentricity, and creativity are the hallmarks of the lifestyle.
The San Francisco poet George Sterling described Bohemians as having a “devotion or addiction to one of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty . . . I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical as their outlook on art and life, as unconventional.”
The Oxford English Dictionary offers this definition: someone, “especially an artist, literary man, or actor, who leads a free, vagabond, or irregular life, not being particular as to the society he frequents, and despising conventionalities generally.”
It was free thinkers and liberals who originally formed the Bohemian Club in San Francisco’s Union Square district in 1872.
The Bohemian Club Opens
Journalists from The San Francisco Chronicle started the club and allowed musicians and artists to be honourary members. The likes of writers Mark Twain, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce were early joiners. The purpose of the club was fellowship lubricated by alcohol.
The owner of The Chronicle, Michael Henry de Young, complained that reporters were too often in the club when they should have been out gathering news. That’s a grumble that has a familiar ring to it.
It didn’t take long for the club to open its doors to people with money. That was the end of the Bohemian aspect of the group in all but the club’s name.
The Bohemian Club Today
Sarah Brumble, writing for Atlas Obscura, says the organization “has become among the most exclusive men’s clubs and/or secret societies in the United States.” Aspiring members had better be male, Caucasian, conservative, and powerful; being filthy rich also helps. San Francisco-based writer Jay Barmann says the club’s “grand historic clubhouse still stands at the corner of Post and Taylor, and reportedly membership costs $30,000 upfront and $600 per month thereafter . . .”
Membership lists are carefully guarded but it’s known that Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, George H.W. Bush, Carl Rove, Ronald Reagan, and the CEOs of Halliburton, Northrup Grumman, and many other Fortune 500 companies have attended. It is the Republican wing of the American ruling class; a couple of former CIA directors and top brass from the Pentagon that round out the roster.
These are men who have ties going back to prep school, through college, and into exclusive golf and country clubs. The connections are bound by marriage and interlocking corporate directorships.
The Bohemian Grove
In addition to the original building, the club boasts a 2,700-acre property among redwood trees known as the Bohemian Grove, situated about 75 miles north of San Francisco. Here, some 2,000 movers and shakers gather once a year to kick back and shed the cares and woes of running the world.
It’s a secret affair, but occasionally journalists have penetrated the security perimeter and returned with some fascinating tales. One such intrepid reporter is Alex Shoumatoff, who wrote about his experience in Vanity Fair.
The encampment starts with a ritual known as the Cremation of Care that Shoumatoff describes as a “macabre, hokey ceremony—with Druidic, Masonic, Ku Klux Klan, and Aryan forest-worship overtones . . .”
An effigy of “care” is burned at a shrine in front of a very large concrete owl. Hooded figures help attendees to banish their worries about where their next billion is going to come from.
Another secret observer was Jon Ronson; he was not impressed. In his 2001 book, Them: Adventures With Extremists, he wrote “My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity: the Elvis impersonators, the pseudo-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking. These people might have reached the apex of their professions but emotionally they seemed trapped in their college years.”
They go through the motions of inviting artists and entertainers to amuse them, and occasionally, professors turn up to give talks.
The Financial Times adds that “There is skinny-dipping and skeet-shooting, marshmallow-toasting, and heavy drinking. In elaborate theatrical entertainments, female characters are played by masters of the universe in drag.”
Bohemian Grove Activities
G. William Domhoff is a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of California. He’s studied the Bohemian Club and reports on his findings on his “Who Rules America?” webpage.
He says the Bohemian Grove is “a place where the powerful relax, enjoy each other’s company, and get to know some of the artists, entertainers, and professors who are included to give the occasion a thin veneer of cultural and intellectual pretension.”
After saying “it is not a place of power,” he seems to contradict himself by adding that people “are there to demonstrate what wonderful human beings they are, to cultivate potential financial backers, or to brag about their past exploits.”
Domhoff says the annual gathering is harmless and nothing more than “a bunch of guys kidding around, drinking with their buddies, and trying to relive their youth, and often acting very silly.”
There are others who see the function as having a less benign character, but we have to be careful not to stumble into the world of wild conspiracy theories.
There are rich men, unleashed from the marital tether, provided with unlimited supplies of booze, and shielded from the prying eyes of the media―of course, lurid stories of shenanigans are going to spring up. Some are likely true, but we cannot know which.
It would be naïve in the extreme to believe that deals are not struck because such transactions take place all the time in backrooms in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and anywhere else the one percent gathers. Because everything is kept secret, it’s impossible not to be suspicious that activity is going on that members don’t want the outside world to know about.
- In 1882, Oscar Wilde visited the Bohemian Club. He is reported to have remarked “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life.”
- Richard Nixon launched his 1968 presidential run with a speech at the Bohemian Grove encampment. In Oval Office banter with John Ehrlichman caught on the infamous Nixon tapes, he said, “The Bohemian Grove, which I attend from time to time–it is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine, with that San Francisco crowd.”
- “What Is Bohemian?” Andy Walker, BBC, March 11, 2011.
- “Bohemian Club.” Sarah Brumble, Atlas Obscura, undated.
- “The Bohemian Club.” Nancy J. Peters, foundsf.org, undated.
- “Bohemian Tragedy.” Alex Shoumatoff, Vanity Fair, May 2009.
- “The 9 Coolest Private Clubs in the Bay Area.” Jay Barmann, sfirst.com, November 17, 2016.
- “Social Cohesion & the Bohemian Grove.” G. William Domhoff, whorulesamerica.ucsc.edu, April 2005.
- “Inside the Bohemian Club: Summer Camp or Secret Society?” Horatia Harrod, Financial Times Magazine, July 12, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on July 17, 2020:
Interesting. Makes me think of skull and bones which also has a seemingly innocuous veneer but it seems evident that these are the ways that the rich stay connected and rich.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on July 17, 2020:
Interesting. The original true bohemian club would have been a wonderful place for writers and artists to frequent. It is a pity the rich and powerful had to take it over...it it seems they want it all. Thank you for sharing.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 17, 2020:
Rupert, interesting and enlightening, thanks for sharing.