The Bohemian Club

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At a century’s remove, the faded cartoons and handbills that have survived from those long nights on lower Sacramento Street evoke a redolence of oyster stew and whisky toddies, gaslight and forensics. The Bohemians had an inordinate appetite for oratory. They would listen patiently to the poet Dan O’Connell of the San Francisco Bulletin reciting Tennyson’s Locksley Hall , or to the actor DeWolf Hopper doing “Casey at the Bat.” They would sit without complaint through John McCullough’s tearful “Rover,” an apostrophe to a faithful dog; through Lawrence Barrett’s “Shamus O’Brien,” an incitement to Hibernian chauvinism; through Barton Hill’s rendering of “Orgia, a Song of Ruin.” In spite of such ordeals, the club endured and prospered. It offered the two essentials of masculine congregation—privacy and companionship—and it was fun.

The place and time were ripe for clubbing. San Francisco was a frontier town in the heat of adolescence, uppity and self-conscious, trying to outgrow the rough manners of the Gold Rush: a city of seekers, hungry for accomplishment and recognition, and one whose burghers were beginning to believe (as they never had believed during San Francisco’s bloated infancy) that the town actually might live to maturity. Everyone must now belong to something. That was the mark of permanence, the touchstone of respectability. At about the time that the Bohemian Club was organizing itself, a visitor from New York wrote (not entirely in jest): “There are three-hundred and eighty-five Societies in San Francisco, every one of which is bound to picnic at least once a year, and they bear all the names ever known on the Atlantic seaboard, and some besides.”

Among this multitude of Woodmen, Argonauts, Olympians, and Pioneers, the Bohemians saw themselves as a breed apart—a brotherhood of ink-stained geniuses. Of twenty-four charter members, seventeen were affiliated with newspapers or printing. Among them were Henry George, founding editor of the Evening Post, who, a few years later, was to publish the revolutionary theories of Progress and Poverty that made him one of the most widely read writers on economics in the nineteenth century; Charles Warren Stoddard, known to his readers (who were many, then,) as “Pip Pepperpod”; and Ambrose Bierce, whose “Prattle” was the most viperish newspaper column in a city famous for invective.

Few of these self-styled Bohemians realized that San Francisco’s brief season as literary capital of a virtually independent American dominion had already passed. It had ended quietly in 1869 with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, which suddenly brought prestigious national publications and enriching editorial positions within seven days’ journey of the Pacific Coast. Those journalists who remained in San Francisco continued to regard themselves as the custodians of a significant regional culture; but their most ambitious colleagues departed for New York, Boston, or Hartford. From time to time the exiles would come back, flogging their latest novels around the lecture circuit, and the Bohemian Club would welcome them with champagne and stewed terrapin, as it did the visiting monarchs and barnstorming poets of Europe. The club would enshrine each returning prodigal in its cartoon gallery, load him with barbaric souvenirs, make him into an “honorary Bohemian.” In this way, the club enrolled Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and played host to Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling.

The High Jinks was a remarkably congenial way to pass an evening. Each presiding Sire would issue a friendly summons, assuring the members that the intellectual rigors of the occasion would be mitigated by refreshments and companionship—and, sure enough, that would prove to be the case. Sire H. N. Clement, inviting the gang for a soirée on the trial and death of Socrates, promised that “strengthening cordial” would be provided for those who might be overcome by excessive grief, and carriages for those who might be overcome by excessive cordial. The playwright Clay Greene, host for a Jinks on “spirits,” pledged that the evil effects thereof would be practically illustrated, “several victims having consented to appear as horrible examples.” Hy Brady, Sireing an evening on “the Devil,” announced: “The exorcises will commence at 9 P.M.” And the debonair and worldly Dan O’Connell noted that the “opening discordancy” of his Jinks would be provided by the club’s own musical aggregation, “who have done so much to lower the rents in this neighborhood.”

Like most fraternal orders, the Bohemian Club eagerly acquired a household flock of symbolic creatures: an owl, one eye discreetly closed to suggest that men under the patronage of Athena would hold their tongues about activities inside the temple; a spider, because (in theory) “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here”; and a Czechoslovakian saint, John of Nepomuk, whom a reigning tyrant in the fourteenth century had ordered drowned in the Moldau for refusing to reveal what the queen had confided to him in the confessional. Year by year, these totem figures ingratiated themselves into all the club’s regalia, giving the dining room and bar an atmosphere of sanctity and providing the members with a sense of tradition stretching back not to the recent childhood of a small American city but to the dawn of civilization.