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The Bohemian Club

July 2024
14min read

For more than a century, the august members of this San Francisco body have enjoyed a unique, all-male midsummer night’s dream

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.

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.

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.

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.

Belasco had been born in San Francisco on the wrong side of Market Street, and he never became a member of the Bohemian Club (although he might have qualified as an “unconventional genius”). During most of his clubbable years, he was conspicuously immured among the tapestries and candelabra of his jasmine-scented, seven-room office suite above the Belasco Theatre in Manhattan, pouring out a succession of ripe historical melodramas adapted from the works of other playwrights. His influence, however, embodied in Hearts of Oak and The Darling of the Gods and Madame Butterfly, drifted westward like a cultural Colorado beetle, devouring indigenous growth and upsetting nature’s balance. Each year the Grove Plays, succumbing helplessly to Belasco’s blight, grew more majestic and abstract: great, murky tableaux vivantes with titles like Truth, Life, Wings, and The Quest of the Gorgon; characters fitted up with flowing caftans and Druidic beards and improbable names (Dulthea, Mardo, Zathustra, and Arl); armies of yeomen bearing garlands, pikestaffs, palm fronds, sheaves of wheat. In various years the woodland stage disclosed a waterfall of fire, a gigantic statue of the Buddha, a glowing cross that seemed to float among the trees, an enormous, jewel-eyed owl that soared down a hillside on an intricate webbing of wires.

When the club gave a dinner in San Francisco in Belasco’s honor in February, 1909, one of the house cartoonists did a poster that showed the Master Showman kneeling to the symbolic owl of Athena, offering it a copy of The Rose of the Rancho, Belasco’s romantic epic of Hispanic California. The speakers who welcomed the Bishop back from Broadway that night were the composer and author of the first Grove Play—Charles K. Field, a magazine editor, and Joseph D. Redding, a young lawyer for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The kneeling, in effect, was mutual.

In the 1920’s Belasco’s theatrical style fell from grace on Broadway. The movies preempted his theater of illusion, and the critic George Jean Nathan (who called Belasco’s entire output “an astounding procession of show-shop piffle,”) took up the task of scouring the American stage of every trace of the Bishop’s literal coloration.

But at the Bohemian Grove, Belasco’s stagecraft—the massive sets, the fog machines, the multicolored spotlight gels—persisted like the paraphernalia of a secret cult. Rising production costs did not intimidate the Bohemians. Changing fashions came not here. Out of its own ranks, the club could recruit a horde of singing swordsmen and a pit orchestra the size of the New York Philharmonic.

More important, the Grove Plays began to develop a sort of institutional inertia, like the rites of an ancient church. Their evanescence, their exclusivity, their pageantry, their archaic language all gave them the aura of tradition in a young state that has been said to lack tradition. Every summer, the Grove Plays rolled forth in comforting similarity. Immense, heathen allegories, old-fashioned heroism, soul-stirring morality: that was the stuff of Bohemian dramaturgy. No gritty, proletarian tragedies. No theater of the absurd. No dying salesmen. For decades, the most popular Grove Plays were those written by George Sterling, a poet whose lofty verses once were hailed (by Sterling’s friend Ambrose Bierce) as the overture to a classic revival in California, and those by the late Dan Totheroh, a prolific playwright best known for his large-scale outdoor festivals on the slopes above San Francisco Bay.

From time to time, members of the club have suggested that drama of such beauty, the products of so much time and cost, should be offered to a wider audience. Before the Great Depression, the Bohemian orchestra and singers used to present a concert version of the latest High Jinks in a music hall in San Francisco on a Sunday afternoon in August, a few weeks after the main event. One of Joseph Redding’s operas—a Chinese legend called Land of Happiness —made its way to the opera house in Monte Carlo in 1925 under the patronage of its wealthy librettist, Templeton Crocker.

But like the native underbrush, the Grove Plays are difficult to transplant. Outside the forest, they suffer from thirst. Their proper nurture requires starlight, shadows, the scent of evergreens, the lingering flavors of good Scotch and rare roast beef. Their success depends, too, on the associated pleasures of the yearly pilgrimage; the elbow brushing with senators and television performers and ambassadors plenipotentiary; the Lakeside Talks, at which secretaries of state and presidential candidates let sail political balloons without danger of instant deflation; the coveted invitations to drop in at one or another of the customary parties given by the little camps-within-the-camp: the lamb-chop feast, the Sunday morning fizz, the perfect mint julep, the minestrone kettle, the barbershop quartet, the bluegrass banjo band.

Perhaps it is the Grove itself that imbues the Play with its unique attraction, for the Grove is clearly one of those holy places like Delphi or Montserrat whose sacred allure affects every visitor and whose sanctity seems to predate recorded history; no one observing the pilgrimage can doubt the Grove’s power, whatever the nature of its ritual.


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