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Inside the secretive elite men's society Bohemian Club that has rich and famous members who want to relive their wild college days

Bohemian Grove Presidents copy
Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon were both members.Wikimedia Commons
  • Bohemian Grove is the Sonoma County, California campground where the Bohemian Club meets annually.

  • The elite men's club retreats reportedly involve heavy drinking and ban cell phones and cameras.

  • The San Francisco-based private club has counted a number of US presidents among its members.

Bohemian Grove is a place where strange things happen.

In June and July, some of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country flock to the redwood grove in Sonoma County, California.

They're all members of the Bohemian Club, a private, all-male club that's counted US presidents, military officials, artists, and business leaders as members.

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The Bohemian Grove grounds are dotted with camps bearing strange names — "Mandalay," "Lost Angels," "Isle of Aves," and "Silverado Squatters." Guests are welcome, but women and minors must leave at night.

A hollow concrete owl towers over the Grove's artificial lake, where prominent individuals often visit to give talks on pressing public policy matters.

During the first weekend of the summer encampment, robed figures sacrifice an effigy as part of a ritual meant to banish all worries from the gathered members. Over the years, a number of those gathered have happened to be US presidents.

A group of former valets who worked at Bohemian Grove's Monastery Camp in Monte Rio, California filed a complaint in June 2023 over labor violations and are seeking up to $1.5 million in damages. The suit alleges that club management "continually worked together to come up with methods to avoid paying payroll taxes and overtime."

Anthony Gregg, one of the plaintiffs, told Air Mail that its retreats involve a lot of drinking and partying, complete with cigars and hot chocolate spiked with horse tranquilizer, and likened its culture to a frat house.

"These guys, they don't want that college experience to go away," Gregg said. "Now they [just] have more money and better alcohol."

Take a look at the Bohemian Club's background some of its notable members.

The Bohemian Club is almost 150 years old

Bohemian Grove Owl Shrine
Wikimedia Commons

The traditions go back to the earliest days of the private gentlemen's club, which sprang up in 1872 in San Francisco. The Bohemian Club began renting the campground for an annual retreat, before buying it in 1899.

"You come upon it suddenly," poet and club member Will Irwin wrote of the Grove in 1908. "One step and its glory is over you."

Originally a cluster of newspaper writers who'd adopted a "bohemian lifestyle," the club expanded over time to include artists, businessmen, military leaders, and politicians.

While the club has diversified in terms of its members' professions, women have been barred from joining since its inception. A 1978 lawsuit did result in the Bohemian Club being required to hire female employees, however.

So how do you become one of the 2,500-odd members? Vanity Fair reported that you either need to snag invitations from several members, or languish for decades on the club's waiting list. You've also got to be prepared to drop $25,000 on your initiation fee.

G. William Domhoff, a University of California, Santa Cruz professor emeritus of psychology and sociology, has studied the Bohemian Club extensively.

In a post on the site Who Rules America? he described the Grove as "a place where the powerful relax, enjoy each other's company, and get to know some of the artists, entertainers, and professors who are included to give the occasion a thin veneer of cultural and intellectual pretension."

The motto of the Bohemian Club is "weaving spiders, come not here." It's a line from William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," reflecting the idea is that members are not supposed to worry about work or business deals while at the club.

The activities at the Bohemian Grove have become increasingly controversial

Bohemian Club
Wikimedia Commons

 

Because of its secrecy, strange ceremonies, and elite body of members, the Bohemian Club has long been the subject of sinister online rumors. Right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones even attempted to film a cremation ceremony there in 2000.

The Bohemian Grove has also attracted a number of protestors who aren't concerned with the allegedly occult aspects of the proceedings.

"The thing we should be concerned about is the lakeside talks," activist Mary Moore told Vice in 2011. " They are public policy talks, where these powerful people discuss and choose policy, but they do so in secrecy, with no public scrutiny."

A number of journalists have managed to infiltrate the campground — with mixed success. Alex Shoumatoff investigated reports the Club was illegally logging for Vanity Fair, and was caught and detained for trespassing.

Philip Weiss snuck into the Bohemian Grove in 1987 and spent a few days mingling with the rich and powerful as they attended speeches, boozed it up from breakfast to nightfall, and urinated on trees. He wrote about the strange experience for Spy magazine.

On Gawker, Sophie Weiner also described her own stint working as a dining server at the Grove in 2016. She described the retreat as a place where the elite could "engage in behavior that doesn't usually fly for people of their stature in the regular world."

While many politicians have attended Bohemian Grove functions, the number of presidents who were actually club members is seemingly greatly overstated. Calvin Coolidge and Gerald Ford, for example, are often erroneously cited as members.

Domhoff concluded that the Bohemian Club reveals that there is a "socially cohesive upper class" in the US, but the Grove activities are "harmless."

"The Grove encampment is a bunch of guys kidding around, drinking with their buddies, and trying to relive their youth, and often acting very silly," he wrote.

As president, Theodore Roosevelt accepted an honorary membership

Theodore Roosevelt
Wikimedia Commons

Theodore Roosevelt was granted honorary club membership when he became president.

In a brief 1903 letter to Bohemian Club member Edgar D. Peixott, he expressed gratitude for the "honor conferred upon me." He also offered his regrets that he could not make it to a club function.

Herbert Hoover was an active and enthusiastic club member

herbert hoover
Republican Presidential candiate Herbert Hoover is pictured at his desk in his Washington headquarters, 1928AP

Hoover joined the Bohemian Club in 1913. By that point, he had amassed a fortune of $4 million in mining and engineering.

Hoover and a group of fellow Stanford alumni ultimately founded their own camp in the Bohemian Grove: the Cave Man Camp.

An abandoned statue of a caveman that had been previously used in a club production inspired the name, according to the book "Hoover, the Fishing President: Portrait of the Private Man and His Life Outdoors."

In "Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage," Jeffrey Frank writes Hoover always "treasured his membership" and was avid about scouting out new club recruits. In 1950, he invited then-congressman Richard Nixon on a trip to the Bohemian Grove.

Richard Nixon was recorded trashing the Bohemian Club on the Watergate tapes

richard nixon
In this March 15, 1973, file photo President Nixon tells a White House news conference that he will not allow his legal counsel, John Dean, to testify on Capitol Hill in the Watergate investigation and challenged the Senate to test him in the Supreme Court.Charles Tasnadi/AP

During his meet-up with Hoover at the Bohemian Grove in 1950, Nixon happened to bump into his future running mate, according to "Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage."

General Dwight D. Eisenhower was also there, meeting with the Cave Man Camp. Two years later, the pair would make up the Republican presidential ticket in 1952.

He would also go on to join the Cave Man Camp after becoming a member in 1953. Domhoff characterized the camp as "highly conservative," even for the Bohemian Club.

Nixon would also, reportedly, use his position in the Bohemian Club to launch his ultimately successful run for the White House.

According to the book "Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World," Nixon delivered a Lakeside Speech to his fellow club members in July 1967. He outlined his ideas on American foreign policy, in what he called the "first milestone on my road to the presidency."

Domhoff wrote that Nixon also got verbal confirmation from club guest Ronald Reagan that he would not challenge him in the Republican primary that year.

According to Domhoff, Nixon was "so full of himself over the Bohemian Grove" that he wanted to give the lakeside talk in 1971. The idea of a sitting US president giving an off-the-record speech before a cluster of some of the most powerful people in the country sparked controversy in the press. The club leaders asked him to back out, and Nixon acquiesced.

But the Watergate tapes indicated that Nixon may have had mixed feelings about the Bohemian Club. He was recorded describing the Bohemian Grove activities using derogatory slurs.

Ronald Reagan avoided the Grove during the 1980 presidential election

Ronald Reagan
Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Reagan was officially inducted into the Bohemian Club in 1975, the year before he tossed his hat into the 1976 presidential campaign.

He belonged to the Owl's Nest Camp, which he shared with execs from United Airlines and a number of other companies that were powerful in the 1970s.

During the 1980 presidential election, Reagan avoided the Bohemian Grove because he "discovered I might be an embarrassment to our fellow Bohemians because of the round-the-clock surveillance by the press. They camp down at my driveway these days," according to "Reagan: A Life in Letters."

In his Spy magazine expose, Weiss reported that he was able to meet with Reagan in the Owl's Nest Camp. They made some small talk, and Reagan off-handedly confirmed that he had assured Nixon he "wouldn't challenge him outright for the Republican nomination in 1968."

Weiss wrote that Reagan gave the lakeside talk that year and took questions from club members afterwards, during which he called for four year terms for Congress members and greater regulation of the press.

George H. W. Bush bunked with executives from influential companies

George HW Bush 1988 RNC
President-elect George H. W. Bush gestures while answering a question during his news conference, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 1988, Houston, Tex.AP/J. Scott Applewhite

George H.W. Bush joined the club in 1973, while chairing the Republican National Committee during the Watergate scandal.

Domhoff writes that Bush belonged to a camp called Hill Billies, along with top executives from Bank of America, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble.

Bush also brought along a future president as a guest on one trip to Bohemian Grove. He introduced his son — George W. Bush — at a lakeside talk in 1995, saying that he'd make a great president, according to Domhoff.

 

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas reportedly attended a retreat with billionaire Harlan Crow

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
Getty Images

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a member and has attended a Bohemian Grove retreat with billionaire real estate developer Harlan Crow, ProPublica reported.

Aside from engaging in heavy drinking, some guests have urinated in its surrounding redwood trees, according to Air Mail.

Guests are not allowed to bring cellphones or cameras, per Air Mail. They enjoy "gluttonous" and lavish four-course meals with plenty of wine at the Monastery Camp, as well as Manhattan cocktails and cigars. 

The Bohemian Club didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider, made outside normal working hours. 

Do you have a tip about the Bohemian Club? Email jmann@insider.com

Read the original article on Insider