U.S.A.

Taking a walk on the wild side

Scandalous pastimes at a club for the powerful

March 23 1981
U.S.A.

Taking a walk on the wild side

Scandalous pastimes at a club for the powerful

March 23 1981

Taking a walk on the wild side

U.S.A.

Scandalous pastimes at a club for the powerful

Paula Parkinson, a 30-year-old blonde ex-Playmate, went into hiding last week as the tale of her congressional capers brought a call to the justice department for an investigation and a confession from her husband, Hank, that he had unleashed a “sexual Frankenstein” upon an apparently only too appreciative Capitol Hill. But while this replay of last month's scandal involving an excongressman's wife, Rita Jenrette, continued to titillate palates, a fuse was burning under a far more explosive device in San Francisco. Marlene (Brandy) Baldwin, a convicted madam, was reportedly working on a TV script that would tell how she had provided prostitutes for the annual frolics, of the Bohemian Club, which numbers President Ronald Reagan and a large slice of his cabinet among its members. William Scobie profiles this most select, and secretive, of societies.

At this time of year in the stolid sixfloor, red-brick club headquarters at the corner of Post and Taylor in downtown San Francisco, the barside chat is normally devoted to preparations for the famous annual Summer Encampment in the redwoods of Bohemian Grove, 104 km north of the city. There, wealthy clubmen gather to think deep thoughts, make deals that sometimes shape the nation’s future and indulge in strange woodland rites. Former U.S.

president Herbert Hoover called it “the world’s greatest men’s party.” It is the club’s real raison d’être.

But this season the conversation is tinged with umbrage, even alarm—and not only because of Marlene Baldwin. The club has other female troubles. It is not merely that feminists from business and social groups around the U.S. are thumping on the august portals demanding admittance. The state itself, through Governor Jerry Brown’s Fair Employment Commission, is accusing this 109-year-old bastion of the white male corporate establishment of sex discrimination.

In normal times, the Bohemians would simply pooh-pooh such effrontery. But a strong Reaganaut presence within the club has brought a flurry of unwelcome nationwide publicity. After all, it is argued, Jimmy Carter’s attorney-general, Griffin Bell, resigned from his two Atlanta clubs when their racial and sex-discriminatory practices were exposed. Why shouldn’t the nation’s new chief law enforcement officer, William French Smith, a longtime Bohemian, follow suit? Why shouldn’t the president? Silver-haired, silvertongued Smith smiled coldly at his January confirmation hearing and said, in so many words, that his critics could drop dead—and that was that.

Who are the Bohemians, and how did they get that way? According to a

learned tome by Professor William Domhoff, The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats: A Study in Ruling Class Cohesiveness, there’s at least one top executive (usually its chairman) from virtually every major bank and corporation in the club. Leaders of academia and the arts are also welcomed: William F. Buckley, Wm. Randolph Hearst Jr., David Niven, Bob Hope and scores of showbiz celebrities belong. In past years, speakers at the traditional postprandial lakeside gatherings within the Grove have included Henry Kissinger,

their guarded Grove, close by the hamlet of Monte Rio (population 1,200) on the Russian River. The Grove’s Shakespearean motto, “Weaving spiders come not here,” is an injunction to forget wheeling and dealing which is widely ignored. While “ruling-class cohesiveness” rarely lets slip details of accommodations arrived at there, somesuch as the 1967 agreement by Ronald Reagan, over a drink with Richard Nixon, to stay out of the coming presidential race—have helped mould America’s destiny.

former NASA scientist Werner von Braun, golfer Arnold Palmer, author Herman Wouk, Robert F. Kennedy (then attorney-general), Dwight D. Eisenhower and clubman Richard Nixon.

Party lines melt at Bohemian Grove. Wealth, power and social standing are the only criteria. As Oscar Wilde once remarked after a visit: “Never in all my life have I seen so many well-fed, welldressed, businesslike-looking Bohemians.” Former president Jerry Ford (no Betty, of course) rubs elbows with former California governor Pat Brown, a Democrat (son Jerry is not a member). Nor is it a western-biased old boys’ network: Vice-President George Bush may be seen at camp, with Illinois Senator Charles Percy and former CIA chief John McCone. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger is a regular.

Each summer, for three weekends— this year’s will be the 103rd—nearly 2,000 Bohemians, with guests in tow, speed in by car and corporate jet to

But it’s leisure and pleasure that rule at the Grove. At each encampment, clubmen down 5,000 bottles of vintage wine, with liquor to match—the hard stuff coming in specially labelled Bohemian Club bottles. There’s golfing, swimming, shooting, lavish “dinner circle” orgies of lobster, salmon, quail and other delights. The Grove has 129 camps, each with its own name and place in the social pecking order. At the summit is Mandalay, where the Reagans and the Nixons play. Here the members—leading industrialists and the Pentagon brass who make up their top clients—bring their own (male) servants, waiters and cooks.

Lost Angels is the rather scornful title of the camp for southern Californian bigwigs. Monkey Block is for artists, the showbiz people and writers who stage the Grove’s theatrical extravaganzas. Some of the entertainments are sombre enough: Bill Buckley strumming on a bass fiddle; a lecture on the confusing

sex life of the turtle. Others include that staple of every secret old boys’ club that ever was—dressing in drag. At one performance last year, for instance, a visitor might have spotted the club’s chief attorney, a distinguished-looking snowy-pated gent, triumphing in his role of wood nymph, costumed in body stocking with gossamer wings attached. On a more dour note was a drama called The Eldorado, dealing with the woes of California gold miners in the 1880s. It featured amateur thespian Casper Weinberger in a bit part.

The high spot of these low jinks is the bizarre affair that opens each summer camp, drawing clubmen in hundreds into a ritualistic charade called Cremation of Care. It concludes with the symbolic immolation of a wooden skeleton representing worldly cares, whose coffin is born aloft by Bohemian high priests in streaming scarlet robes while a band plays There’ll Be A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.

Oddly enough, reporters are barred from this club, formed one night in 1872 by five bored news hawks on the old San Francisco Examiner to promote good fellowship (i.e., booze-ups) and “to help elevate journalism to that place in the popular estimation to which it is entitled.” That aspiration went down the drain when membership was extended to show people, and by 1878, the year of the first Grove-fest, the journalists were already on their way out.

Today, a prospective member faces an interrogation that, according to one clubman, “would satisfy the KGB.” There is a waiting list of 1,500 notables, all eager to pay the $2,500 initiation fee and $600-a-year dues. Unless nine of the 11-member club selection committee vote for you, you’re out. Try again in three years. As for women, the rationale that excludes them is simple. “Members would be inhibited,” says a clubman who is also aide to AttorneyGeneral Smith, by their presence at the Grove. “There’s a lot of drinking and loose language.”

Drink, drag and dirty stories. Why would any self-respecting woman wish to intrude on such revels? Carol Schatz, president of the Women’s Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, says that Smith’s refusal to resign from a club that discriminates against women and blacks raises serious concern about his commitment to civil rights. Second, crucial business issues are routinely discussed at these clubs, so barring women and minorities “puts them at a very real disadvantage.”

Bohemian Club President Michael Coonan heaves a sigh: “All I can say is this has been a men’s club for a century, and its going to stay that way. Hell,” he asks, “would you invite women to your poker game?”