Richard M. Nixon, one of the more famous members of the nation’s most famous men’s club, once put it something like this: Anyone can aspire to be President of the United States, but few have any hope of becoming president of the Bohemian Club.
For most of this century, the Bohemian Club--both at its six-story brownstone near downtown San Francisco and its pristine 2,700-acre redwood grove on the Russian River--has been a meeting place for the nation’s richest and most powerful men, emphasis on the word men .
“That’s where the power brokers are,” said Prof. Michael Burns of Florida’s Nova University Law Center, who has studied the club. “The roster is extraordinary . . . particularly during the Reagan Administration. On a national level, I don’t think there is anything like it.”
It’s one of the few places outside of Washington where one may see Ronald Reagan, George Bush, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger together, where businessmen and self-made millionaires can rub elbows with the likes of Henry Kissinger.
Perhaps because its roster is so impressive, because it is located in this most open of cities, or because so many political leaders here are women, the club for years has been a juicy target for lawsuits and brickbats aimed at its no-women-allowed membership policy. Critics are convinced that high-powered business contacts are made there, and that since women are excluded they can never compete equally with men in business.
The 2,700-member club is not completely immune to social pressure. Over time, it dropped unwritten prohibitions by admitting Jews and some blacks, Asians and Latinos. The ranks of Democrats have also increased. However, women are different, members say. Changing times and legal attacks may force some men’s clubs to admit women. But at the Bohemian Club, the board of directors has not so much as formally talked about tinkering with the section of the bylaws that bars women--and has no plans to do so, club Vice President George Elliot said.
“It is a gentlemen’s club. It has always been that way,” he said.
Members say women miss no golden business opportunity. They cite their motto, “Weaving spiders come not here,” to underscore that shop talk is frowned upon. It is a social club, they say, and an outlet for businessmen who fancy themselves to be talented, or at least to be patrons of the arts, for they entertain each other in weekly skits, readings or musical performances.
“I guess I feel totally unalarmed,” a member said of efforts to open membership to women. He said that the club’s mystique would disappear “as soon as it is monkeyed with.”
The member, who runs the San Francisco office of a national business firm and writes on the side, finished lunch in the club’s dining room, and then did something few men would dare do in any other restaurant--lit a big, fat, smelly cigar. In the clubhouse, it seemed perfectly natural.
After a chat with club mates, he walked, cigar in hand, toward the library and paused at the entrance where photos hang of seven special Bohemians--Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon, Gerald Ford and Reagan, Republicans all, and all members of the club.
He smoked with impunity in the 13,000-volume library, on the elevator, down hallways, past the domino room, the reading room and the massive bar (called the cartoon room for its member-drawn artwork). Among his musings along the way: The reason women will never be accepted as Bohemians is, simply, that “they never were little boys.”
Membership practices have taken a small toll. A few men have quit, some will not join and some groups no longer use it for social functions. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, for one, quietly stopped holding its annual holiday party there in 1979 after several judges, including a black, a Jew and a few women appointed by President Jimmy Carter, protested that it was a symbol of discrimination, two judges said.
Sympathy Toward Women
Some members, like Warren Christopher, an attorney at O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles and Carter’s deputy secretary of state, said he “would support a more inclusive membership.” Los Angeles Times Publisher Tom Johnson, another member, also said women should be admitted. But he said he is in the minority on the issue and that such a dramatic policy change is “doubtful” in his lifetime.
So far, the strongest attack on the Bohemian Club is a suit by the state Fair Employment and Housing Commission. It is aimed at forcing the club to hire women among the 300 employees who attend to the needs of the 2,000 men who attend the fabled midsummer retreat at Bohemian Grove. After losing in state courts, the club plans an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Club leaders say privately they doubt that the court will review the relatively narrow case.
The suit, however, does not affect membership policy. In fact, law professor Burns, among the strongest advocates of opening clubs to women, said that under the First Amendment right of association, private clubs legally can dictate membership policies. But there can be indirect hits aimed at club coffers. That is the current tack of critics of all-male clubs.
The Legislature and the state Franchise Tax Board are considering disallowing business expense write-offs for dues and meals at such clubs since, based on the statements of directors of the Bohemian Club and other exclusive men’s clubs, they are purely social.
Other legislation being debated would revoke liquor licenses of clubs that have sex-based admission policies.
Finally, under a proposal by San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Nancy Walker, to be drafted by City Atty. Louise Renne, the city will stop doing business with companies that reimburse executives’ expenses at such clubs. Bechtel Group is one that would be affected, because it reimburses members’ expenses and has city contracts.
In San Francisco, a U.S. representative, the front-runner for an open House seat, the mayor, city attorney and five of 11 supervisors are women. Yet like all women who are invited to events at the club, they must enter via a side door and stay in the downstairs banquet rooms. No woman has ever gotten permission to set foot at the grove during the summer retreat.
“I just find that offensive,” Walker said of having to enter through a side door.
But while some outsiders may deride the club as anachronistic, elitist and sexist, the waiting list for membership is 3,000 names long.
When Stanford’s business school needed a place to honor Secretary of State Shultz with an award earlier this year, it chose the Bohemian Club. A businessman member described the club’s allure by saying that it is “a step up in the world, kind of an ego trip.”
Club literature says mere invitation to the summer retreat “is a token that a man has arrived; arrived not merely in moneymaking or political power, but in acceptance by his peers.”
Even the most liberal Bohemian seems to have a hard time figuring out how the club would deal with women at Bohemian Grove. In July, all across the country, men leave strategy sessions, board rooms and other daily business for all or part of the boozy 17-day retreat in Sonoma County.
They sleep in tents or cabins, hang out at bars set up in the woods, watch or act in member-produced plays, tell slightly off-color stories, get nostalgic, occasionally hatch political deals--and urinate on trees.
Pressure From Wives
“I don’t mean to be sexist, but it (the housing) is not that comfortable,” said Harry Scott, club president. Then he listed problems with admitting women. The first to join would be the wives. If they weren’t admitted first, they would not approve of their husbands’ sojourn if other women were there.
“We’re not up there to throw rocks at women. Women are wonderful.” But, shaking his head at the thought of admitting women, Scott said, “The whole thing would be a catastrophe.”
“Somebody,” an even more blunt member said, “is going to end up in the bushes with somebody else’s wife.”
Although the club may lose its appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually have to hire women at the retreat, the frolic this year will be fraternal--and by all accounts, it is a lot like a frat party, heavy on drinking, antics and pranks.
The highlight is the “Cremation of Care,” an elaborate ritual with a cast of 200 in which an effigy named Dull Care is engulfed in flames in a large amphitheater, overseen by the club symbol, a 40-foot sculpted owl, and hundreds of Bohemians. With Care turned to ashes, the men thus may forget their outside concerns for their short stay in the grove.
Forget they do. A lawyer for that staid law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro, testifying in the state’s hiring suit a few years ago, said that he wore fairy’s wings and a body stocking for his role as a wood nymph in a summer production.
William F. Buckley, Walter Cronkite, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, Weinberger and former Bank of America Chairman Leland S. Prussia performed in an informal skit in 1981.
Former Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown has told often of walking nude between the shower and his quarters. If women were around, the men say, they would be entirely too inhibited to don wood nymph get-ups or walk around half-naked.
Brown, the liberal Democrat who signed into law much of the civil rights legislation now used against the clubs in California, said the state’s effort to force the club to accept women is an abuse of his constitutional right of “freedom of expression.” If he wants “to sit around in a pair of shorts and listen to stories that I don’t want to listen to when my wife is there,” he should have that right, Brown said.
He finds himself in league with former Sen. S. I. Hayakawa. Women should not be allowed into the club, Hayakawa said, for the same reason he doesn’t “want to go to women clubs and join a sewing circle, or a ladies’ bridge club.”
“If membership were important for business or professional reasons, that would be different. But we have readings from Rudyard Kipling,” he said.
The issue is not literature, critics say. While contracts may not be signed at the club, social contacts made there are pivotal to deals done later. So long as women are barred, the reasoning goes, they will never reach the upper strata attained by men.
Membership can be good for business, some Bohemians say. Friends made at the club become business partners outside. Clients invariably are impressed when they are taken there for drinks or a night of entertainment.
“You develop friendships. You develop contacts. Certainly it was important. You never know when those contacts will be helpful,” said a San Francisco businessman who recently retired.
“People go out of their way not to talk about business (at the club),” said William G. Ouchi, a UCLA business professor and former member. “But it’s always going to be the case that people prefer to do business with those they know and trust.”
And despite protestations that business does not get done at the club or retreat, there have been some significant decisions made there. Nixon is said to have begun his political comeback with a well-received “lakeside talk” to powerful corporate leaders at the 1967 grove retreat. Eisenhower so impressed powerful Republican members with a lakeside talk in the 1950s that they began to think of him as presidential material, Nixon has written. (Nixon has not been back since he left the presidency, members say.)
The potential for alliances is certainly there. In his 1983 book, “Who Rules America Now?” sociologist G. William Domhoff counted 326 Bohemians who were listed in “Who’s Who in America.” At the 1980 summer retreat, directors and officers of 30% of the top 800 U.S. corporations attended.
The legal basis for the club’s opposition to change is the First Amendment right of free association. Under the law, so long as the club is social, it is like the members’ living rooms, and they can invite whomever they please, club lawyers say.
They contend that the club differs from service clubs like Rotary, which has chapters nationwide, membership in the hundreds of thousands, and openly aims to foster better business. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this month said Rotary must admit women because it is more like a public business than a club, and thus cannot exclude women.
The Bohemian Club, to the contrary, is highly selective in its membership, claims to be non-commercial and strives to maintain its privacy, said club attorney William Edlund. “Its members want to be left alone, just like people do in their own homes.”
Ironically, the club, founded 115 years ago by newspapermen and artists who liked strong drink and good talk, had a membership policy that, while open in general, excluded the wealthy, Domhoff and others have written. By the end of its first decade, wealthy businessmen not only had been admitted but had taken over. They were the only ones who could afford to keep it running.
Today, voting members must pay $8,500 to join and $110 monthly dues. The club, concerned about an aging membership, has tried to draw younger recruits, with mixed results, members say.
The club, which counts as early members Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London and Bret Harte, clings to its roots by inviting performers to join, and requiring that all members have some talent--or at least appreciate the arts.
The club has some performers, like jazzman Vernon Alley and comedians Rowan and Martin. Also, authors Herman Wouk and Irving Stone. But it has had difficulty attracting young artists, perhaps because they must perform free. So most writing and performing is done in businessmen-members’ spare time.
Authors Ernest J. Gaines and Herbert Gold, approached to join a few years back, found the club was not their style. As part of the recruitment effort, they were invited to an evening of entertainment. It was performed, of course, by members: four white men in black face sang Mills Brothers tunes.
“The brandy, the cigars, the men congratulating each other on being there. I found it boring. . . . The word bohemian is most inappropriate,” Gold said.
At the end of the performance, a congenial fellow went up and, apparently struck by the fact that Gaines is athletic-looking and black, slapped the author on the back and boomed out that he must have been a football player in his youth.
Gaines, the first black to be awarded a creative writing fellowship at Stanford, was not impressed by the glad-hander or his compliment.
“The majority of people were far from being bohemian,” said Gaines, who wrote “A Gathering of Old Men.” In an interview, he said he declined to join because he was “just sort of tired of being the first to go into things"--and doubted that he would have found people with whom he could discuss Hemingway.
Ethnic, Racial Bars
The question of racial and ethnic barriers remains touchy. Domhoff, the sociologist from the University of California at Santa Cruz, said the first Jew was admitted as a regular member in 1972.
The perception remains, among some on the inside and many on the outside, that blacks may be less than welcome. A member said privately that he would propose a black for membership only after first determining on an informal level whether the person would win approval from the club’s membership committee.
The club made a push in the mid-1970s to admit minorities. Some like Gaines declined to join. So did Cecil Poole, who is black and now a federal appeals judge. Bohemian Club President Scott said there are about five black members, plus some Asians and Latinos. There would be more, but “it’s a matter of social contact,” Scott said. Many members simply do not know many minorities to invite them to join, he said.
Although he quit for personal reasons that he would not discuss, UCLA’s Ouchi said the club does more good than harm. Members help each other through hard times like illness, for example, and the club gives businessmen a sense of community.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “things come in bundles. One part of the bundle is that birds of feather flock. In this case, it is a white male feather.”