The Bohemian Club

PrintPrintEmailEmail

At first it was a men’s club of the meanest stripe—a sparsely furnished, stogie-scented parlor on the second story of a red-brick office block, across the alley from an undertaker’s morgue, within the sonic radius of a two-bit music hall. Its founders were half-a-dozen newspapermen who imagined themselves, on no substantial evidence, to be the artistic elite of a provincial city that already rejoiced in men’s clubs of virtually every possible type from Cantonese tongs to Bavarian zonkerbunds. The charter members, after fierce debate, agreed to call themselves “Bohemians,” although a minority fretted about the ugly implications of the name: cheap wine, stringy hair, unpaid rent, contagious diseases.… They voted to keep out rich people, publishers, and other natural enemies of the muse.

By the time it reached its hundredth anniversary a few years ago, the Bohemian Club of San Francisco had undergone an evolution roughly comparable to the metamorphosis of a long-horned caterpillar into a swallowtail butterfly. Not only had dozens of newspaper publishers broken the caste line, thousands of other conspicuously wealthy men also had squeezed in. Over the years these invaders had elbowed out most of the newspaper hacks, revised the entrance rules, and raised the dues. Nowadays, at the club’s summer camp in a private forest north of San Francisco, past and future Presidents of the United States hobnob with Nobel laureates and generals of the army. Movie actors and concert pianists play one-night stands among the redwood trees. Chairmen of the board arrive in personal planes to spend the weekend, and the nearby county airport lays in an extra supply of aircraft fuel to serve the corporate jets lined up along the runway. A sociologist who studied the guest list of a recent outing found in attendance at least one officer or director from forty of the fifty largest industrial corporations in the United States.

In short, the Bohemian Club has enjoyed a classic American success: up from poverty to affluence, from obscurity to fame, from crudity to elegance. To that extent, its story is predictable, like the saga of some great corporation that began in a cellar and is now worth a million dollars on the dime.

Yet, the Bohemian Club continues to excite the curiosity of historians, political reporters, and social psychologists for quite another reason: it alone among upper-class American men’s clubs retains the odd flavor of its origins—a strange blend of boyish pantheism, tribal self-congratulation, artistic dalliance, and amateur pageantry. The novelist John Van der Zee, after working anonymously one summer as a waiter in the woodland lair of the Bohemians, concluded: “The Grove is the greatest gathering ground for men of business and professional achievement in America, as well as a preserve of cultural forms that are a projection of unconscious needs and desires as old as human time."

The secret of this phenomenon is a play—or, to be precise, a series of plays that have run along, year after year, like the Athenian Dionysia, gathering mystic, quasi-religious significance and becoming the climactic event in a vast, annual, international pilgrimage. It is a good deal more than the founding fathers had in mind.

According to the carefully preserved annals of the Bohemian Club, the charter members began their association in the early 1870’s with a series of haphazard Sunday breakfasts at the home of James Bowman, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle . Bowman’s wife, a gentle spirit, tolerated the clash of great minds and the reek of Chinese-made cigars, but she resented having to wash pencil sketches out of the tablecloth on Monday mornings. At her suggestion, the group removed itself to quarters rented from a local fraternity called the Jolly Corks, which long since has joined the dust of the Tontine, the Pickwick Club, and the Rinky Dinks.

A few weeks after holding their organizational meeting in March, 1872, the Bohemians put on their first “High Jinks,” an unpretentious, all-boy entertainment resembling Skits Night at a poorly endowed boarding school. Over the years the Jinks has been described variously, but its official definition is “an intellectual revel with moderate drinking.” The Bohemians are said to have picked up the idea from Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, in which the novelist recounts the joys of frat night among a mob of Scottish lairds whose pleasure was to take a theme word or idea—say “ghosts” or “love” or “money”—and expatiate upon it in poetry, rhetoric, and song. A “Sire” directed the proceedings and presumably maintained decorum.

The Bohemian Club soon added a refinement to the Scottish institution. This was the Low Jinks, a more spontaneous and vulgar diversion, separated from the high-minded material by drinks and dinner. Sometimes the Low Jinks would be a mirror image of the High. A High Jinks on “truth,” for example, might be followed by a Low Jinks on fibbing.