Bohemian Grove is a restricted 2,700-acre (1,100 ha) campground located at 20601 Bohemian Avenue, in Monte Rio, California, belonging to a private San Francisco–based gentlemen’s club known as the Bohemian Club. In mid-July each year, Bohemian Grove hosts a more than two-week encampment of some of the most prominent men in the world.
The Bohemian Club’s all-male membership and guest list includes artists, particularly musicians, as well as many prominent business leaders, government officials, including former U.S. Presidents, senior media executives, and people of power. Members may invite guests to the Grove. Guests may be invited to the Grove for either the “Spring Jinks” in June or the main July encampment. Bohemian Club members can schedule private day-use events at the Grove any time it is not being used for Club-wide purposes, and they are allowed at these times to bring spouses, family, and friends, although female and minor guests must be off the property by 9 or 10 p.m. (21:00 or 22:00 local time).
After 40 years of membership, the men earn “Old Guard” status, giving them reserved seating at the Grove’s daily talks, as well as other perquisites. Former U.S. president Herbert Hoover was inducted into the Old Guard on March 19, 1953; he had joined the club exactly 40 years previously. Redwood branches from the Grove were flown to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, where they were used to decorate a banquet room for the celebration. In his acceptance speech, Hoover compared the honor of the “Old Guard” status to his frequent role as veteran counselor to later presidents.
The Club motto is “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here”, which implies that outside concerns and business deals (networking) are to be left outside. When gathered in groups, Bohemians usually adhere to the injunction, although discussion of business often occurs between pairs of members. Important political and business deals have been developed at the Grove. The Grove is particularly famous for a Manhattan Project planning meeting that took place there in September 1942, which subsequently led to the atomic bomb. Those attending this meeting included Ernest Lawrence, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the S-1 Executive Committee heads, such as the presidents of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, along with representatives of Standard Oil and General Electric as well as various military officials. At the time, Oppenheimer was not an S-1 member, although Lawrence and Oppenheimer hosted the meeting. Grove members take particular pride in this event and often relate the story to new attendees. However, other behavior at this famous campground has led to numerous exaggerations and parody in popular culture. One such documented example was former president, Richard Nixon‘s comments from a May 13, 1971 recording that: “The Bohemian Grove (an elite, secrecy-filled gathering outside San Francisco), which I attend from time to time. It is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine…”
The tradition of a summer encampment was established six years after the Bohemian Club was formed in 1872. Henry “Harry” Edwards, a stage actor and founding member, announced that he was relocating to New York City to further his career. On June 29, 1878, somewhat fewer than 100 Bohemians gathered in the Redwoods in Marin County near Taylorville (present-day Samuel P. Taylor State Park) for an evening sendoff party in Edwards’ honor. Freely flowing liquor and some Japanese lanterns put a glow on the festivities, and club members retired at a late hour to the modest comfort of blankets laid on the dense mat of Redwood needles. This festive gathering was repeated the next year without Edwards, and became the club’s yearly encampment. By 1882 the members of the Club camped together at various locations in both Marin and Sonoma County, including the present-day Muir Woods and a redwood grove that once stood near Duncans Mills, several miles down the Russian River from the current location. From 1893 Bohemians rented the current location, and in 1899 purchased it from Melvin Cyrus Meeker who had developed a successful logging operation in the area. Gradually over the next decades, members of the Club purchased land surrounding the original location to the perimeter of the basin in which it resides.
Writer and journalist William Henry Irwin said of the Grove,
You come upon it suddenly. One step and its glory is over you. There is no perspective; you cannot get far enough away from one of the trees to see it as a whole. There they stand, a world of height above you, their pinnacles hidden by their topmost fringes of branches or lost in the sky.
Not long after the Club’s establishment by newspaper journalists, it was commandeered by prominent San Francisco-based businessmen, who provided the financial resources necessary to acquire further land and facilities at the Grove. However, they still retained the “bohemians”—the artists and musicians—who continued to entertain international members and guests.
Membership and operation
The Bohemian Club is a private club; only active members of the Club and their guests may visit the Grove. These guests have been known to include politicians and notable figures from countries outside the U.S. Particularly during the midsummer encampment, the number of guests is strictly limited due to the small size of the facilities.
Camp valets are responsible for the operation of the individual camps. The “head” valets are akin to a general manager’s position at a resort, club, restaurant, or hotel. Service staff include female workers whose presence at the Grove is limited to daylight hours and to central areas close to the main gate. Male workers may be housed at the Grove within the boundaries of the camp to which they are assigned or in peripheral service areas. High-status workers stay in small private quarters, but most workers are housed in rustic bunkhouses.
The main encampment area consists of 160 acres (65 ha) of old-growth redwood trees over 1,000 years old, with some trees exceeding 300 feet (91 m) in height.
The primary activities taking place at the Grove are varied and expansive entertainment, such as a grand main stage and a smaller, more intimate stage. Thus, the majority of common facilities are entertainment venues, interspersed among the giant redwoods.
Sleeping quarters, or “camps”, are also scattered throughout the grove, of which it is reported there were a total of 118 as of 2007. These camps, which are frequently patrilineal, are the principal means through which high-level business and political contacts and friendships are formed.
The pre-eminent camps are:
- Hill Billies
- Cave Man
- Owls Nest
- Isle of Aves
- Lost Angels
- Silverado Squatters
Each camp has a “captain”, and one of his many jobs is the up-keep of the area. Many local Sonoma County contractors have performed a variety of tasks among these camps throughout the years. Many contractors have stated the requested work to be simple and eco-friendly.
The central spaces for recreation and entertainment are:
- Grove Stage — an amphitheater with seating for 2,000, used primarily for the Grove Play production, on the last weekend of the midsummer encampment. The stage extends up the hillside, and is also home to the second largest outdoor pipe organ in the world.
- Field Circle — a bowl-shaped amphitheater used for the mid-encampment “Low Jinks” musical comedy, for “Spring Jinks” in early June and for a variety of other performances.
- Campfire Circle — has a campfire pit in the center of the circle, surrounded by carved redwood log benches. Used for smaller performances in a more intimate setting.
- Museum Stage — a semi-outdoor venue with a covered stage. Lectures and small ensemble performances.
- Dining Circle — seating approximately 1,500 diners simultaneously.
- Clubhouse — designed by Bernard Maybeck in 1903, completed in 1904 on a bluff overlooking the Russian River; a multi-purpose dining, drinking and entertainment building; the site of the Manhattan Project planning meeting held in 1942.
- The Owl Shrine and the Lake — an artificial lake in the interior of the grove, used for the noon-time concerts and also the venue of the Cremation of Care, which takes place on the first Saturday of the encampment. It is also the location of the 12:30 p.m. daily “Lakeside Talks.” These significant informal talks (many on public policy issues) have been given over the years by entertainers, professors, astronauts, business leaders, cabinet officers, Central Intelligence Agency directors, future presidents and former presidents.
Symbolism and rituals
Since the founding of the club, the Bohemian Grove’s mascot has been an owl, symbolizing wisdom. A 30-foot (9 m) hollow owl statue made of concrete over steel supports stands at the head of the lake in the Grove; this Owl Shrine was designed by sculptor and two-time club president Haig Patigian, and constructed in the late 1920s. Since 1929, the Owl Shrine has served as the backdrop of the yearly Cremation of Care ceremony. The Cremation of Care is an annual theatrical production written, produced and performed by and for members of the Bohemian Club.
The Club’s patron saint is John of Nepomuk, who legend says suffered death at the hands of a Bohemian monarch rather than disclose the confessional secrets of the queen. A large wood carving of St. John in cleric robes with his index finger over his lips stands at the shore of the lake in the Grove, symbolizing the secrecy kept by the Grove’s attendees throughout its long history.
Cremation of Care
The ceremony takes place in front of the Owl Shrine, a 40-foot (12 m) hollow owl statue made of concrete over steel supports. The moss- and lichen-covered statue simulates a natural rock formation, yet holds electrical and audio equipment within it. For many years, a recording of the voice of club member Walter Cronkite was used as the voice of The Owl during the ceremony. Music and pyrotechnics accompany the ritual for dramatic effect.
Each year, a Grove Play is performed for one night during the final weekend of the summer encampment. The play is a large-scale musical theatrical production, written and composed by club members, involving some 300 people, including chorus, cast, stage crew and orchestra. The first Grove Play was performed in 1902; during the war years 1943–1945 the stage was dark. In 1975, an observer estimated that the Grove Play cost between $20,000 and $30,000, an amount that would be as high as $136,000 in today’s dollars.
In the summer of 1989, Spy magazine writer Philip Weiss spent some seven days in the camp posing as a guest, which led to his November 1989 article “Inside Bohemian Grove”. He wrote:
You know you are inside the Bohemian Grove when you come down a trail in the woods and hear piano music from amid a group of tents and then round a bend to see a man with a beer in one hand and his penis in the other, urinating into the bushes. Weiss also noticed “hundreds of cigars whose smokers had ignited them in defiance of the California Forest Service’s posted warnings”.
On July 15, 2000, radio show host Alex Jones and his cameraman, Mike Hanson, snuck into the Grove. Their investigation was discussed by Welsh journalist Jon Ronson in a five-part Channel 4 documentary, The Secret Rulers of the World. Ronson documented his view of the ritual in his book Them: Adventures with Extremists:
My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity: the Elvis impersonators, the pseudo-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking. These people might have reached the apex of their professions, but emotionally they seemed trapped in their college years.
On January 19, 2002, 37-year-old Richard McCaslin was arrested after his nighttime infiltration of the Bohemian Grove, where he set several fires. He was heavily armed and wearing a skull mask and outfit with “Phantom Patriot” written across the chest.
Although no woman has ever been given full membership in the Bohemian Club, the four female honorary members were hostess Margaret Bowman, poet Ina Coolbrith (who served as librarian for the Club), actress Elizabeth Crocker Bowers, and writer Sara Jane Lippincott. Since Coolbrith’s death in 1928, no other woman has been made a member. These honorary members and other women guests have been allowed into the Bohemian “City Club” building and as daytime guests of the Grove, but not to the upper floors of the City Club nor as guests to the main summer encampment at the Grove. Annual “Ladies’ Jinks” were held at the Club especially for spouses and invited guests.
In 1978, the Bohemian Club was charged with discrimination by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing over its refusal to hire women employees. In January 1981, an administrative law judge issued a decision supporting the practices of the Club, noting that club members at the Grove “urinate in the open without even the use of rudimentary toilet facilities” and that the presence of females would alter club members’ behavior. However, the judge’s decision was overruled by the State Fair Employment and Housing Commission, which on October 17, 1981, ordered the Club to begin recruiting and hiring women as employees.
In 1984, the Bohemian Club went to the Supreme Court of California over the issue, arguing that their freedom of association was being harmed; the Court found against the Club and denied a review in 1987, forcing the Club to begin hiring female workers during the summer encampment at the Grove in Monte Rio. This ruling became quoted as a legal precedent and was discussed during the 1995–1996 floor debate surrounding California Senate Bill SB 2110 (Maddy), a proposed bill concerning whether tax-exempt organizations (including fraternal clubs) should be exempt from the Unruh Civil Rights Act.
Outside the central camp area, which is the site of the old-growth grove, but within the 2,712 acres (1,098 ha) owned by the Bohemian Club, logging activities have been underway since 1984. Approximately 11,000,000 board feet (26,000 m3) of lumber equivalents were removed from the surrounding redwood and Douglas fir forest from 1984 to 2007. In 2007, the Bohemian Club board filed application for a nonindustrial logging permit available to landowners with less than 2,500 acres (1,000 ha) of timberland, which would allow them to steadily increase their logging in the second-growth stands from 800,000 board feet (1,900 m3) per year to 1,700,000 board feet (4,000 m3) over the course of the 50-year permit. The board had been advised by Tom Bonnicksen, a retired forestry professor, that they should conduct group selection logging to reduce the risk of fire burning through the dense second-growth stands, damaging the old-growth forest the Club wants to protect. The Bohemian Club stated that an expansion of logging activities was needed to prevent fires, and that money made from the sale of the lumber would be used to stabilize access roads and to clear fire-promoting species like tanoaks and underbrush. The California Department of Fish and Game instead recommended single-tree logging to preserve the habitats of murrelets and spotted owls in senescent trees. Philip Rundel, University of California, Berkeley professor of biology said that redwoods are not very flammable and “This is clearly a logging project, not a project to reduce fire hazard”. Reed F. Noss, professor at the University of California, Davis, has written that fires within redwood forests do not need to be prevented, that young redwoods are adapted to regenerate well in the destruction left behind by the fires typical of the climate.
After controversy raised by opponents of the harvesting plan, the club moved to clearly establish their qualification for the permit by offering 163 acres (66 ha) to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula, Montana for a conservation easement. A further 56.75 acres (22.97 ha) were written off as not being available for commercial logging, bringing the total to 2,316 acres (937 ha) and thereby qualifying for the permit. Opponents and their lawyers interpret the relevant law as counting all timberland and not just that actually subject to the logging permit. They state that if the total of timberland is counted, 2,535.75 acres (1,026.18 ha) are owned by the club, so the permit should not be granted.
On March 10, 2011, Judge René A. Chouteau rejected the Non-Industrial Timber Management Plan (NTMP) that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had approved. The suit, brought by the Sierra Club and the Bohemian Redwood Rescue Club, sought to have the NTMP annulled. The ruling calls on the Bohemian Club to draft a new NTMP that offers alternatives to its proposed rate of logging. At present the Bohemian Club is not allowed to log any of its property.
In popular culture
- A large portion of the novel Significant Others by Armistead Maupin takes place in the Bohemian Grove, where the rituals are described in detail.
- Harry Shearer’s movie Teddy Bears’ Picnic is about an annual encampment of prominent male leaders at the Zambezi Glen, a thinly-veiled reference to the Bohemian Grove. Shearer attended at least one Bohemian event.
- Episode 6 of the animated television series Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil, “Human Sacrifice”, first broadcast on October 7, 2007, is set in an orgy at Bohemian Grove, where a human sacrifice to the Devil (H. Jon Benjamin) is arranged by Senator Whitehead (Sam Seder) as the kick-off for his Presidential campaign. Whitehead is meant to marry Lucy, the Devil’s daughter (Melissa Bardin Galsky), who is also the Antichrist, and the victim is intended to be her boyfriend, DJ Jesus (Jon Glaser). Jesus, however, who is also an escape artist, gets out of the cage Whitehead has locked him in, and Jessie Goldstein, a comic who has sold his soul to the Devil in return for a number of poop jokes, ends up being sacrificed.
- The Bohemian Grove is referred to in Robert Altman’s 1984 movie Secret Honor by Richard Nixon (played by Philip Baker Hall), describing a powerful group manipulating Nixon throughout his political career. In the movie, the Bohemian Grove is also called “The Committee of 100”.
- Bohemian Grove is the inspiration for “Elysian Fields” in season 5 of House of Cards.
- Christopher Moore’s 2018 novel Noir features the Bohemian Grove as a central plot device.