Step inside the secret billionaire Bohemian Club

Welcome to the most secretive club on Earth, where world leaders, movie stars and business tycoons kick up their heels behind locked gates in the bucolic Californian countryside.

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise. It could be the sight of a group of naked billionaires drinking gin fizz out of a fire bucket, or a line-up of world leaders singing showtunes in drag. And look out for when everyone gets together for the ritual sacrifice to the great owl god.

The problem is that going down to these particular woods is extremely difficult. Held among the drifting shadows of a giant redwood forest, the annual July gathering of the ultra-secretive Bohemian Club is one of the more hotly debated but little observed events on Earth.

Carried to northern California in fleets of private jets and blacked-out limousines, hundreds of powerful, wealthy and eminent men vanish into a 10-square kilometre chunk of wilderness known as Bohemian Grove, where they are billeted in bare-bones camps with captivating names like Lost Angels, Mandalay and Cave Man.

The identities of these men – absolutely no women are allowed – is one of the global elite’s most closely-held secrets. Tales abound of hard drinking, skinny-dipping, Elvis impersonations and ribald songs around the campfire.

Bohemian Club Grove scene, between 1896 and 1911. Creator: Arnold Genthe. (Photo by Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Peeing against trees is held to be “the inalienable right” of all Bohemians – possibly because many are long past their best bladder control days. At least five US presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, are known to have been members, along with statesmen such as the late Henry Kissinger, tycoons like John D. Rockefeller and a galaxy of overseas luminaries.

The current intake is believed to be more eclectic, with a smattering of tech and media tycoons, including Rupert Murdoch (honorary), and a showbusiness contingent headed by Hollywood veterans Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger and two members of the Grateful Dead rock band.

Insofar as the 150-year-old club will say anything about its activities, it paints a wholesome picture of hearty male bonding away from the everyday responsibilities of making piles of money and powerbroking. “Like a Boy Scout camp,” is a line often spun, although these boys have an average age of almost 60 and can afford to drop $45,000 plus $1000-a-month for club membership.

Beyond the dense, 80-metre-high wall of redwoods that screen the Grove from the world, the view of what goes on is not always so sanguine. As no media coverage of any kind is allowed, conspiracy theorists have a field day, portraying the club as a sinister cabal spinning a web of global influence. While the Bohemians have certainly given their detractors plenty of ammo, the truth about the Grove may be simpler – that no matter how rich and powerful a man may be, it’s still fun to get drunk, strip off, run around in the woods … and enjoy the privilege of witnessing one of the weirdest ceremonies anywhere.

The secret Bohemian Grove is part of a dense redwood forest near San Francisco. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

“Brother Bohemians,” comes the traditional July summons from the club president. “The sun is once again in the Clutches of the Lion, and the encircling season bids us to the forest. There, to celebrate the awful mysteries. Come out, Bohemians! Come out and play. Come with all the buoyant, impetuous rush of youth.”

This is the starting gun for the bizarre, unsettling opening ritual known as The Cremation of Care. Held on the first night of camp, it unfolds beneath a giant stone statue of an owl, looming over a darkened forest lake. American journalist Philip Weiss, one of the few outsiders ever to infiltrate the club, described how a torch-lit procession of ‘priests’ wearing long, hooded robes emerged from the trees carrying a coffin.

“At this point, some tree spirits and another priest or two appeared at the base of the main owl shrine, at the south end of the lake, and sang songs that told of how a man’s heart is divided between ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’, how it is necessary to escape to another world of fellowship among men.”

The coffin, containing a human effigy known as ‘Dull Care’ is then rowed across the lake to a funeral pyre which the priests ignite to wild cheering. In club lore, ‘Care’ represents the burden of responsibility and duty these prominent men must bear. The cremation symbolically frees them from it. At least, while they’re in the Grove.

UNSPECIFIED – SEPTEMBER 23: Portrait of Jack London, November 1916. (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

But Care hasn’t finished yet. From hidden loudspeakers comes a gloating voice: “Fools! When will you learn that you cannot slay me? Year after year ye burn me in this Grove. But when again ye turn your feet toward the marketplace, am I not waiting for you, as of old?”

In desperation, the priests turn to the stone owl. “Oh, thou great symbol of all mortal wisdom,” they cry. “Owl of Bohemia, grant us your counsel we beseech you.” In a deep, sombre voice, the owl explains that Care can only be vanquished by the flame that burns in the Light of Fellowship, and then only for as long as the Bohemians are in the forest. “Hail, fellowship,” the bird cries. “And thou, Dull Care, begone.”
A few years ago, some of the more technically-minded members rigged up a sound-and-light apparatus which made the owl’s beak appear to move as it spoke, but traditionalists objected, and the ceremony continues in a form unchanged since the late 19th century.

The club was founded in 1872 by a bunch of free-wheeling San Francisco artists and writers – notable among them Harry Edwards, an English-born Australian actor who is credited with choosing the club’s famous motto, “Weaving spiders come not here”, a quote from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bemoaning the city’s lack of sophistication, Harry and his friends sought a sanctuary for civilised debate and dining.

Early membership was limited to: “gentlemen connected professionally with literature, art and drama,” and included authors Mark Twain and Jack London, but the rules were slowly relaxed with businessmen and politicians being admitted.

Privacy of members is protected. (Photo by Kimberly White/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

By the time Oscar Wilde visited the club in 1882, he noted: “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, businesslike Bohemians in my life.”

The tradition of meeting in the woods began when Harry – a keen butterfly collector – announced his departure for an extended engagement in New York, and the club threw him a farewell party in a forest glade. It was so much fun, the Bohemians decided to adopt it as an annual fixture, and in 1899 bought the Grove, 100 kilometres from the city, where the big outdoor knees-up has been held ever since.

While the club will say almost nothing about its activities – calls to its grand San Francisco HQ are politely batted off – it is clearly sensitive about suggestions that it’s in the world-domination business.

I was directed to its sparse website, where a passage reads: “One of the exaggerated notions about the Bohemian Club is that it is a gathering and decision-making place for national and international ‘power brokers’. In fact, the club is a refuge from decision making and other pressures. Our motto, ‘Weaving spiders, come not here,’ conveys the character and purpose as a social, vocational organisation. Conducting business is prohibited.”

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1870: Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish writer. Colourized photo. (Photo by Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images)

Not everyone is convinced. One of the Grove’s nearest neighbours, veteran activist Mary Moore, has spent decades protesting against the gatherings. “The problem isn’t that they’re having underground sex orgies or sacrificing babies in there,” she says. “That’s all BS on the internet. It’s that you have these extremely powerful people from politics, the military and big business, mostly with the same mindset, discussing vitally important matters in total secrecy and no public oversight. I think it’s something we should all be worried about.”

The club was first established as a sanctuary for civilised debate and dining. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

One of the darkest tales of the Grove is that the Manhattan Project – the plan to build the nuclear bomb – was begun here in 1942 when the atomic scientists Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller were guests, although history shows that the project was actually launched in Washington a year earlier.

But mightn’t it be a good thing if these Masters of the Universe have an occasional chance to chill out amid the grandeur of nature? British author Jon Ronson, who sneaked into the Grove some years ago with a TV documentary crew, was somewhat less alarmed by what he saw.

“My lasting impression was of an all-pervading sense of immaturity,” he says. “The cod-pagan spooky rituals, the heavy drinking. These people might have reached the apex of their professions, but emotionally they seemed to be trapped in their college years.”

Portrait of American politician (and future US President) Ronald Reagan in 1980. (Photo Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images)

The whole place, Jon remembers, looked like a giant party site, with dozens of empty bottles of Möet & Chandon and half eaten bowls of picnic food scattered around. A noticeboard advertised an evening entertainment featuring a line-up of elderly gents in full drag, with fishnet stockings, large fake breasts and extravagant make-up. Were these boozed-up buffers really scheming to take over the world
Peter Phillips, a retired University of Sonoma professor who has studied the club thinks not. “There’s nothing really sinister going on there,” he says. “It’s men genuinely feeling connections with one another. There’s an intimacy there that they don’t really find anywhere else.”

Which may help explain why the Bohemians have fought long, hard and, so far, successfully to keep women out. In the age of gender equality and #MeToo, it was hardly surprising that the club’s hallowed men-only rules would come under sustained attack. Especially in a place as right-on as California. But among those champagne-guzzling forest frolickers are some extremely ingenious lawyers, and so far, the club has largely held the line.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch. (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Its one concession has been to hire female employees, but only after a long legal battle in which it argued that “the male gender is a bona fide occupational qualification”. This was initially accepted, and only overturned on appeal when the lower court judge was revealed to have been a guest at the Grove. Amongst its other defences, the club has argued that Bohemians like to walk around naked, “are in the habit of urinating in the open without even rudimentary toilet facilities,” and that its practices and culture are protected by the right to freedom of expression.

“You know you’re inside the Bohemian Grove,” wrote Philip Weiss, “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, urinating into the bushes. This is the most gloried-in ritual of the encampment, the freedom of powerful men to pee wherever they like.”

Bohemian Club Grove scene, between 1896 and 1911. Creator: Arnold Genthe. (Photo by Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Mary admits that the annual protest outside the Grove has dwindled in recent years.

“We used to get hundreds of people up here,” she says. “Quite a few arrests, but I guess they now have bigger things to worry about.”

Yet the Grove can still start a storm. Earlier this year it was revealed that Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas – the court’s foremost conservative – stayed as the guest of a Republican Party-supporting billionaire, prompting outraged claims of cronyism and demands in Washington for a clampdown on “corrupt hospitality”.

To the billionaire boys of the backwoods, it’s just one more controversy. Soon the owl summons will be sounded, the skies will be dark with Gulfstreams, the pre-breakfast cocktails will be shaken, and all can sink into a state of blissful Bohemian rhapsody.

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