“Is this really what I want to be doing? Sneaking into the exclusive Bohemian Grove, on the Saturday night when roughly 2,500 of America’s richest, mostly right-wing Republicans are kicking off their annual July “encampment”? The members of the San Francisco–based Bohemian Club are mostly all here, partying boisterously in this primeval stand of gargantuan redwoods 75 miles north of the city, or will be during the next 16 days.
Over the years all the usual suspects have made appearances: Rumsfeld, Kissinger, two former C.I.A. directors (including Papa Bush), the masters of war and the oligarchs, the Bechtels and the Basses, the board members of top military contractors—such as Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the Carlyle Group—Rockefellers, Morgans, captains of industry and C.E.O.’s across the spectrum of American capitalism. The interlocking corporate web—cemented by prep-school, college, and golf-club affiliations, blood, marriage, and mutual self-interest—that makes up the American ruling class. Many of the guys, in other words, who have been running the country into the ground and ripping us off for decades.
The summer high jinks begin, as they have for more than 100 years, with a macabre, hokey ceremony—with Druidic, Masonic, Ku Klux Klan, and Aryan forest-worship overtones—called the Cremation of Care, which is starting in 40 minutes down by the lake. I squeeze through a hole in a chain-link fence onto the 2,700-acre property and follow an old overgrown railroad bed. To my left, below a dense tangle of California bay laurel, big-leaf maple, and understory shrubs, the muddy-green Russian River is sliding by. I didn’t see any posting on that side of the property, but I know I am trespassing.
While many in the world see this gathering of the military-industrial high command as the bad guys—a sort of rogue state operating outside the constraints of democratic institutions, a favorite watering hole for what Peter Phillips, a Sonoma State University sociologist who has published extensively on the Bohemian Club, calls “the global dominance group”—this is not how the members imagine themselves. They see themselves as the moral underpinnings of America’s greatness, whose central tenets are the Protestant work ethic: work hard and prosper and you’ll get into that great club in the sky. The Bohemian Club is like the Opus Dei of the Protestant American establishment. Very few Jews have made it in, and even fewer blacks.
The encampment is more of a drunken blowout and an opportunity for bonding than a serious roundtable like Davos, although there is a series of lakeside talks that are enlightening about what the government has up its sleeve for the upcoming year. Kissinger is a perennial favorite. His speech nine years ago, “Do We Need a Foreign Policy?,” was music to the ears of the Bush administration. In 1942, Edward Teller is said to have planned the Manhattan Project here. There’s a lot of dark history in this forest retreat. It’s rumored that during the presidency of Gerald Ford one Grove employee was a charming, impeccably mannered ex-Nazi, who used to drive around in a jeep that had the decal—a palm tree with a swastika on it—of Rommel’s Africa campaign, which he had served in. Ford made him take it off.
The majority of activities take place in the 109-acre main grove, in about 120 separate rustic camps nestled under the biggest, most ancient redwoods on the property. Each member is assigned to a camp. The fanciest one is Mandalay. Then Hill Billies. Other camps have names like Derelicts, Five Easy Pieces, Poison Oak, Rattlers. Herbert Hoover, an enthusiastic Grover, called it “the greatest men’s party on earth.” Aside from the prostitutes who are rumored to be visited by randy Grovers at local bars and motels, it’s a guys-only affair, and, historically, there’s always been talk of buggery in the dappled shadows under the redwoods, particularly at Highlanders, perhaps simply because members wear kilts and nothing underneath. Richard Nixon (a member of Cave Man camp), whose 1967 lakeside talk kicked off his successful run for the presidency, was caught on one of his Oval Office tapes describing the Grove as “the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine.”
Another hallmark of the encampment is the promiscuous micturition—guys standing up to the redwoods and relieving themselves everywhere you look. Maybe they’re trying to symbolically assert their primacy over nature. But the amount of drinking that goes on, plus the fact that many members are elderly and likely have prostate problems and can’t make it back to their camp fast enough, also plays a role in what has become, if not a formal ritual, a group-reinforcing collective activity. It must be said, to be fair to the old Wasp establishment, that the club has a rich history full of decent members with refined social graces. Mark Twain and the acerbic misanthrope Ambrose Bierce were early members. So was the socialist Jack London, who wrote a clairvoyant novel called "Before Adam", about a time when humanity was ruled by a small group of idiots who were destroying the world.”
- Alex Shoumatoff, (Excerpt: "Bohemian Tragedy," Vanity Fair Magazine, 5. 2009. Image: Bohemian Grove Dancer, 1927).