- Historic Sites
The Bohemian Club
For more than a century, the august members of this San Francisco body have enjoyed a unique, all-male midsummer night’s dream
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
Rumors of this pungent style of masculine nightlife drifted out to the other gentlemanly clubs of San Francisco—the aristocratic Pacific Club, which had lost some of its cachet, along with some of its blue Virginia blood, in the defeat of the Confederacy; the gymnastic Olympic Club, home of parallel bars and baseball teams; the starchy Union Club; the democratic Elks; the Caucasians, the Pioneers, the Janissaries of Light—and it drove them nearly wild with envy. Soon the push was on, led by men who would never before have called themselves “bohemian,” much less have fraternized with newspapermen.
Within a few years, the club succumbed to an irresistible urge to take in some inartistic members who could pay their bills. But how could capitalists be admitted to a club that specifically excluded men of property? The latchkey was a masterpiece of Orwellian wordcraft known as Cremony’s Standard, enunciated by Colonel John C. Cremony, the very man who had proposed and defended the club’s ambiguous name in the first place. Cremony, to quiet objections to the dreadful word “bohemian,” adroitly had altered its definition from an unwashed ruffian of artistic inclinations to “a man of genius who refuses to cramp his life in the Chinese shoe of conventionality, whose purse is ever at the disposal of his friends, and who lives generously, gaily, carefree, and as far from the sordid, scheming world of respectability as the south pole is from the north.”
As applied to prospective members with money to spend, Cremony’s Standard proved to be a needle’s eye through which any camel could comfortably pass. Over the years it has accommodated such gaily carefree waifs as Herbert Hoover and such foes of sordid scheming as Richard M. Nixon.
The cynicism of this arrangement did not go unnoticed. No sooner were the first bankers and brokers inside the door than certain blithe spirits from the early days began complaining that things weren’t like they used to be. When the price of lunch went up from two-bits to fifty cents, the charter geniuses realized that the simple days on Sacramento Street had ended. Groups of dissidents began trying to return the club to its “pristine bohemianism,” which they, like Cremony, defined to suit themselves. One bloc of secessionists broke away to form a short-lived “Pandemonium Club.” (They ate sandwiches and drank beer at their evening revels, and the audience sat on the floor.) Another cabal, who called themselves the “Swallowtails,” attempted to upset the club’s standards of dress; and a band of desperate nostalgiacs, rebelling within the organization against what they called “the trespass of the money-changers,” launched a campaign to elect the impoverished Dan O’Connell president of the club. (The Bohemians instead chose James Duval Phelan, a multimillionaire who was later mayor of San Francisco and a United States Senator from California. It was rumored that most of O’Connell’s supporters could not vote because they were behind in their dues.)
The only permanent schism in the Bohemian Club developed in 1902, when a group of members resigned to demonstrate their loyalty to William Randolph Hearst, whom the club had censured for publishing a verse by Ambrose Bierce that seemed to advocate the assassination of President McKinley. Like earlier dissidents, the pro-Hearst faction, led by the political editor of the San Francisco Examiner, insisted that they were trying merely to return Bohemia to its native simplicity, intimacy, and poverty. The reformed organization that they founded and named The Family has become almost as wealthy and sophisticated as the Bohemian Club, but with 471 members The Family is a trifle more intimate.