San Francisco Bohemian Club: Power, Prestige and Globalism
by Peter Phillips
June 8, 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 is, ironically, also the first day of summer camp for the
world's business and political aristocracy and their invited guests.
Between 2,000 to 3,000 men will gather 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
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 1building 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
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 then 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
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 re-affirmations, lots of hosted camp parties,
political discussions, sideline business meetings and huge amounts of
food and alcohol.
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
On the surface, the Bohemian Grove is a private place where global and
regional elites meet for fun and enjoyment. Behind the scene, 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. It 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.