When people refer to the ‘old boys network’, they usually think of gatherings in boardrooms, country clubs, and the like. But there is a weird variation of it that is less well known and that is the Bohemian Club that takes place for two weeks annually at a place called the Bohemian Grove. A sociological study of the club suggests that at these gatherings very little plotting and scheming takes place. In fact, such things are actively discouraged. What is encouraged is drinking and playfulness bordering on the downright gross and ridiculous. What that does is build social cohesion among the movers and shakers in society, because when men (and it is open only to men) let their hair down and act silly in a group, it apparently creates bonds among them.
The Bohemian Grove is a 2,700-acre virgin redwood grove in Northern California, 75 miles north of San Francisco (map), where the rich, the powerful, and their entourage visit with each other during the last two weeks of July while camping out in cabins and tents.
It’s an Elks Club for the rich; a fraternity party in the woods; a boy scout camp for old guys, complete with an initiation ceremony and a totem animal, the owl. It’s owned by the Bohemian Club, which was founded in San Francisco in 1872. The Bohemians started going on their little retreat shortly after the club was founded; it became big-time by the 1880s, and it continues today.
However, it is not a place of power. It’s 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. Despite the suspicions of many on the Right, and a few on the Left, it is not a secret meeting place to plot, plan, or conspire. The most important decisions typically happen just where we might expect: in the boardrooms of corporations and foundations, at the White House, and in the backrooms of Congress. Yes, as I show later, some wanna-be and has-been Republican politicians sometimes visit the Bohemian Grove, including future and former presidents of the United States, but they are there to demonstrate what wonderful human beings they are, to cultivate potential financial backers, or to brag about their past exploits.
The secretive club requires workers to staff it and from time to time some of them report on what happens there. Some of them are reporters who used this avenue to infiltrate the place while others are young people who actually needed the summer job and later wrote about what they saw. Sophie Weiner belongs in the latter category and her description of her experience makes for interesting reading.
For Bohemian Club members and their guests, the Grove is a place where they can be themselves, fraternize drunkenly, pee on trees and otherwise engage in behavior that doesn’t usually fly for people of their stature in the regular world.
A boy’s club since the beginning, the Club barred women from even working for the organization until a lawsuit in 1978 went to the California Supreme Court, where its employment practices were judged discriminatory. By the time I made my way to the Grove in 2009, the summer after my freshman year in college, this was ancient history, but my employment options were still limited to valet parking and the Dining Circle, a charming clearing surrounded by old growth redwood trees and filled with enough picnic tables for several hundred members. A literal red line on the ground defined the area past which females were not allowed. More lucrative jobs, such as maintenance and employee driving, were beyond that line.
Because of the limitations on women’s movement in the camp, employees who worked in the Dining Circle were shuttled through the camp to our workplaces. After making it down a twisty driveway, past the security gates into a huge dusty parking lot, we’d line up to be carted in packed vans, 15 at a time, up an internal dirt road. If you got there late, a line would form and you could look forward to an unpaid forty minutes or so of waiting time.
My high school friends, with our pimply faces and food service frustrations, didn’t even register on the power scale at work in this space, and likely never will. Ultimately, the reason there’s no real vetting process for Grove employees is that nothing happening there that is all that damning—if you accept that the world is a capitalist hegemony controlled by old white men who can piss wherever they want.
She provides a telling anecdote told her by a co-worker that reveals once again the sense of entitlement of the Bush family.
Devon, remembered a night when she had to break it to the ex-Republican presidential candidate that she couldn’t get him a milkshake. “The pastry chefs are busy making dessert for everyone, so there are rules about when you can order milkshakes,” she said. “One night, Jeb Bush is there, and he flags me down and asks for a milkshake. I give him my spiel about why you can’t get a milkshake before 8 pm. He’s like, ‘No, I really want a milkshake.’ I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t get you one.’ So he asks to speak to my manager.” Like his presidential campaign, Bush’s milkshake confrontation would end in defeat. “So I find a manager and tell him what’s going on. He goes back over to the table and tells him basically the same thing I did,” Devon says. “Jeb Bush gets kind of angry. He says something like, ‘Do you know who I am?!’ My manager bends down and says, ‘Yes, sir, I know who you are. But the milkshake rule still applies to you.’”
Remember the rule: However nice a person is to you, if they are not nice to the wait staff, they are not nice people.