The Bohemian Club

While fighting off secession and rebellion, the Bohemian Club continued to delight its growing membership of lawyer-poets and merchant-painters with windy recitations and raucous banquets at which the voice of the toastmaster was customarily drowned out with drum rolls, crashing cymbals, and bursts of “Auld Lang Syne.” In this exuberant style the Bohemians feasted General Winfield Scott Hancock and King Kamehameha, Sarah Bernhardt, and Ignace Paderewski.

Six years after the founding of the club, and at the peak of the local fashion for fraternal picnics, the Bohemians began holding a series of modest, outdoor High Jinks in the coastal forests north of San Francisco. The first, on June 29, 1878, drew about one hundred men to a campground on Paper Mill Creek in Marin County, across the straits of the Golden Gate. The spectators huddled in blankets, nipped at bottles of Hotaling’s Old Kirk Whisky, and groused about the damp night air and the prevalence of poison oak. They never went back to that ill-favored dell; but for three summers thereafter they held a summer Jinks near Guerneville on the Russian River. Then, still restless, they rented a grove of virgin redwood trees downriver, near the village of Monte Rio. This forest, owned by a rancher named Meeker, was as secluded as any within a hundred miles of the city—a shadowy, fragrant hollow at the confluence of two canyons, densely wooded with giant sequoia sempervirens, evergreen oaks, and California laurel trees. But the articulate membership again found reason to complain. The location, some thought, was too far from San Francisco. The woodland was too far from the railroad station; the Jinks Circle too far from the campground; the campground too far from the bar; the river too far from everything. Next summer they moved again, and it was only for lack of further fields that they finally returned to the place near Monte Rio in 1898 and bought 160 acres for $27,000 to save the trees from the steel teeth of a nearby timber mill. Over the next ninety years the club expanded its private forest to nearly 2,500 acres—a priceless reserve of thousand-year-old trees and aboriginal underbrush in a region that was long ago logged over, ravaged by floods, and overrun by vacationers and weekend tourists.

At the turn of the century, the decision to purchase Meeker’s redwood grove looked like nothing more than a simple and practical solution to an annual housing problem. But it turned out to be a defining choice that transformed the club’s summer outing from a peripatetic weenie roast for a few hundred kindred San Franciscans into an elaborate global congress of the power elite. It was the Grove that infused the Bohemian Club with that peculiar mixture of playfulness and pomp, intimacy and grandeur, that differentiates it from any other men’s club in America.

The reason, apparently, is that Meeker’s woods were haunted. Gorgons and hamadryads lurked under the bracken ferns. They infected the souls of city men with a vague and atavistic longing to revert to savages, wrapped in wolfskin robes and suckled in a creed outworn. Idols of St. John of Bohemia, the noncommittal owl and the idle spider popped up among the shrubbery as though their cultus had been native to the place, only waiting for the club to stumble upon the sacred ground. Soon, every social faction in Bohemia developed a yen to stake out its own camping spot, surround it with a bark stockade, furnish it with paper lanterns, cut-glass punch bowls, canvas chairs, and a tree-stump bar. Before long there were dozens of little camps within the great encampment—camps for railroad executives, bank presidents, tenors, baritones; camps for men from Los Angeles, Palo Alto, Hillsborough, and Piedmont; camps for university professors, for the 60 per cent income-tax bracket, for the upper ranks of the Republican party. As for the Jinks, that erstwhile Scottish drinking game, it took flame like a pagan bonfire.

The midsummer High Jinks of 1902 became the “Grove Play,” a musical pageant written and performed by members of the club in a natural amphitheater at the heart of Meeker’s woods. The inspiration of Bohemian Club drama came directly from the local wood sprites, interpreted in the theatrical idiom of the self-appointed “Bishop of Broadway,” David Belasco, who was just then enchanting New York audiences with onstage hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, a riverboat in flames, and a holocaust in an insane asylum.