Settled 75 miles north of bustling San Francisco, the town of Monte Rio is tucked away from the urban sprawl of the bustling city. This quiet, humble town lies amongst the lush forests and rolling mountains of northern California. For the majority of the year, a campground, dubbed Bohemian Grove, is completely empty. Yet, when the weather becomes warmer, around July, hundreds of men gather to relax, practice traditions, and exchange their artistry amongst themselves. This fraternity branched off the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. This society is comprised of journalists, politicians, artists, performers, and businessmen. After the Bohemian Club was established, the men began to hold retreats outside of the city. Membership into the club is highly exclusive and involves an intense screening process along with a hefty initiation fee and annual fees.
The Bohemian Grove is able to boast about its incredibly high profile membership and guest attendance; the importance and relevance of certain members makes the Bohemian Grove a place of great interest and curiosity. Men in government, business, academia, and artists all attend. In 1989, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, former ambassador to the U.S. former Secretary of State, and former President Reagan were just some of the high profile men in the Grove. While the elite are often seen at the camp, it has been frequently stressed that the Bohemian Grove is not a place of power; rather it is described as a place where the powerful go to relax, drink, converse, and engage with each other’s intellect (Domhoff).
Wildly popular among older men, membership is extremely restrictive. Men aging from their mid 50s are most commonly seen at the Grove. It is when the men are older that they have the access, power, “wisdom”, and skill to be considered a desirable potential member. It is almost impossible for the common scholar, politician, and artist to gain access. While there is a 33 year long waiting list, those who have exceptional connections and impeccable reputations may have a slightly better chance of becoming a member. At the Grove, those who exhibit exceptional talents, usually in music, are highly regarded. The arts are extremely appreciated. It is important to note that at the camp, business should not be attended to and all members are expected to be present in the activities without the distractions of family and life on the outside. In the founding days, the club had an overwhelming amount of artists and it has been thought that as time went on, men in power have taken over the artists. While those in power have been a clear presence, the exclusivity has always been a component of the club and at the Grove since 1878 (Domhoff).
In the past couple of decades, a couple of reporters have attempted to uncover secrets and rituals. Alex Jones, a filmmaker, infiltrated the camp with hidden cameras. His crew successfully captured a ritual called Cremation of the Care, which involved dancing, costumes, and cult-like actions. In the late 1980s a journalist, Philip Weiss, for Spy Magazine posed as a guest. He even published an extensive article about the inner-workings of the Bohemian Grove (Flock).
The Bohemian Grove promotes a great deal of masculinity among the men. Asserting their presence and stereotypical ideal of their gender, the men feel entitled to overtly urinating, stating their fearlessness to begin drinking in bed before breakfast, and skeet shooting (Domhoff). Drinking is very important to the culture at the Grove and the state of California has already threatened to take away their liquor license because they do not allow women. The Bohemian Club has been very clear in their mission to make it and keep it an male-only fraternity. They strongly oppose the presence of women, as they enjoy basking in the all male community; and many take advantage of the all-male environment by walking around in limited amount of clothing. At times, the camp resembles the conversations and exploration that happens during boyhood, yet instead of being 13, the men are in their 50s so the conversations take a slightly different direction – male impotence often being a subject of conversation (Domhoff). Women are allowed to be at the camp but only at certain times and under supervision. The club’s position toward women could certainly be viewed as sexist and extremely outdated- holding true to the club’s original mission and membership qualifications.
The sexism implicit in the club’s mission speaks to its desire to keep with tradition, despite modern day ideals of gender equality. The Bohemian Club and at the Grove, feel that they empower men through a rejuvenation of masculinity in the all-male community. It could be viewed that their vision of a “man” is extremely narrow minded, as they mostly speak to those who fulfill the traits they deem as worthy. Yet, this seems to contradict the artists who attend the camp, as many times those men do not conform to the ideals of traditional masculinity in American society. The club see-saws between keeping true to the term “bohemian” in that they consider themselves intellectuals, artistic or not, superior in society, but simultaneously, adhering to the standards of a conventional chauvinistic ideals.
Upper class members of society are welcomed into the club. This is due in part by the costly membership fee as well as the connections and reputations one must have to be considered into membership. In its earliest days, the club appeared to be committed to bringing artistry from the members into the retreats as they viewed this as an important component in the group, yet decades later, that fundamental part of the club’s idealism has shifted. The term “bohemian” originally referred to a group of outcasts in society, solely living off their arts and are vagabonds who live an unconventional lifestyle. This starkly contrasts the profiles of the men in the club.
The use of “bohemian” in the club and camp title has not gone without objection and controversy. In the past, men have argued whether the word correctly represented who they truly were. The term bohemia in the late 1800’s and today have carried, somewhat, similar reputations. Vagabonds, carefree, and unconventional outcasts of society were all considered bohemians. As well, the idea of European gypsies from the country of Bohemia to the modern day vision of Bohemia were not too far from the men’s minds. While the Bohemian Club and the Bohemian Grove still keep their original name, it can be argued that those who attend do not align to the traditional views one has about bohemians and bohemianism. Rather, the men in the Grove reflect elite men, only in higher professional positions. Straying from the traditional idea of Bohemians who make a living off of their art and living a simple life, free of modern distractions, only a certain portion of the men at the Grove might be characterized by bohemians, such as Charles Baudelaire or Arthur Rimbaud, as true bohemians.
The club’s intention claims to be for, “…the promotion of social and intellectual intercourse between journalists and other writers, artists, actors and musicians, professional or amateur” (Domhoff). In the late 19th century, the club had a difficult time reconciling with the term bohemia once again. This term was rapidly changing, as was society. Intellectuals debated about the authenticity of the ‘bohemianism’ of the club and, “social aspirations which means death to genius and a general dead-level mediocrity” (Domhoff). There is a strong sense that the members of the club teeter between the desires to be viewed as ordinary citizens of society but as the time unique, intellectually superior that deserve such exclusivity at a remote camp.
- Domhoff, William G. “Who Rules America: Social Cohesion & the Bohemian Grove.” Who Rules America: Social Cohesion & the Bohemian Grove. UCSC, Apr. 2005. Web. 15 Sept. 2014.
- Weiss, Philip. “Masters of the Universe Go to Camp: Inside the Bohemian Grove.” Editorial. Spy Magazine Nov. 1989: 59-76. Print.
- Flock, Elizabeth. “Bohemian Grove: Where the Rich and Powerful Go to Misbehave.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 16 June 2011. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.