San Francisco Bohemian Club:
Power, Prestige and GIobalism
by Peter Phillips
Sonoma County Peace Press, August/September 2001
For much of the world, July 14th is celebrated as the end
of a flagrantly out of touch French monarchy; the date in 1789
when the people of Paris rose up and marched on the Bastille,
a state prison that symbolized the absolutism and arbitrariness
of the Ancient Regime.
July 14th, 2001, was, ironically, also the first day of summer
camp for the world's business and political aristocracy and their
invited guests. Between 2,O00 to 3,000 men gathered at Bohemian
Grove, 70 miles north of San Francisco in California's Sonoma
County, to sit around the campfire and chew the fat, off the record,
with ex-presidents, corporate leaders and global financiers.
One might imagine modern-day aristocrats like Henry Kissinger,
George W. Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld amid a circle of friends sipping
cognac and discussing how the "unqualified" masses cannot
be trusted to carry out policy, and how elites must set values
that can be translated into "standards of authority."
Private men's clubs, like the San Francisco Bohemian Club,
have historically represented institutionalized race, gender and
class inequality. English gentlemen's clubs emerged during Great
Britain's empire building period as an exclusive place free of
troublesome women, under-classes, and non-whites. Men's clubs
were the place where English elites could co-mingle in homogeneous
harmony. Copied in the United States, elite private men's clubs
served the same self-celebration purposes as their English counterparts.
As metropolitan areas emerged, upper-crust white males created
new clubs throughout the Americas. These private men's clubs continued
the European traditions of elitism, race superiority and gender
The San Francisco Bohemian Club was formed in 1872 as a gathering
place for newspaper reporters and men of the arts and literature.
By the 1880s local businessmen joined the Club in large numbers,
quickly making business elites the dominant group. More than 2,500
men are members today. Most are from California, while several
hundred originate from some 35 states and a dozen foreign countries.
About one-fifth of the members are either directors of one or
more of the Fortune 1000 companies, corporate CEOs, top governmental
officials (current and former) and/or members of important policy
councils or major foundations. The remaining members are mostly
regional business/legal elites with a small mix of academics,
military officers, artists, or medical doctors.
With a historically all white membership, the Bohemian Club
became sensitive to civil rights issues in the 1960s and gradually
admitted a few men of color. Today they remain 99% white. The
Club does continue to maintain its exclusive gender practices.
Other than allowing women to work in food service, the shooting
range and the parking lot at the Grove-which was forced on them
by the California Supreme Court-they have remained defiantly a
male-only organization. Class discrimination continues as well.
New Club applicants must be sponsored by two existing members
before being considered for admittance.
By the early 1880s, Bohemian Club members began conducting
summer camping trips to the Sonoma County redwoods. The summer
encampments proved so popular that the Club began purchasing land
along the Russian River in 1899. By the 1960s the Bohemian Club
owned 2,712 acres, including a 1,500-year-old grove of redwoods,
adjacent to the small town of Monte Rio.
The Bohemian Grove summer encampments have become one of the
most famous private men's retreats in the world. Club members
and several hundred world-class guests gather annually in the
last weeks of July to recreate what has been called "the
greatest men's party on earth." Spanning three weekends,
the outdoor event includes lectures, entertainment, rituals, plays,
theater, friendship reaffirmations, lots of hosted camp parties,
political discussions, sideline business meetings and huge amounts
of food and alcohol.
The Bohemian Grove offers daily lectures known as "lakeside
chats." The Under-Secretary of the Navy may give an off-the-record
speech on military budget issues, or the President of Mexico may
address global free trade. Whatever the topic, those present emerge
with a sense of insider awareness of high-level policy issues
and political situations which are often yet-to-be, or perhaps
never-to-be, publicly articulated.
One such chat in 1994, given by a University of California
political science professor, warned of the dangers of multi-culturalism,
Afro-centrism, and the loss of family boundaries. He declared
that "elites based on merit and skill are important to society.
Any elite that fails to define itself will fail to survive...
We need boundaries and values set and clear." He went on
to conclude that we cannot allow the "unqualified" masses
to carry out policy, and elites must set values that can be translated
into "standards of authority."
Foremost at the Bohemian Grove is an atmosphere of social
interaction and networking. You can sit around a campfire with
directors of PG&E, or Bank of America. You can shoot skeet
with the former secretaries of state and defense, or you can enjoy
a sing-along with a Council of Foreign Relations director or a
Business Roundtable executive. All of this makes for ample time
to develop personal long-lasting connections with powerful influential
On the surface, the Bohemian Grove is a private place where
global and regional elites meet for fun and enjoyment. Behind
the scenes, however(it serves a very important function similar
to 18th century French Monarchy scheming or the 19th century empire
building of the British. The Bohemian Grove is an American version
of race gender and class elitism. lt is the human process of building
insider ties, consensual understandings, and lasting connections
in the service of class solidarity. Ties reinforced at the Grove
manifest themselves in global trade meetings, party politics,
campaign financing, and top-down democracy. In a sense, they live
in a self-made Bastille surrounded by power, prestige and privilege,
and united in their fear of grassroots democracy.
Peter Phillips is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Sonoma
State University and Director of Project Censored He wrote his
dissertation on the Bohemian Club in 1994.