Review of The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats by G. William Domhoff and The Greatest Men’s Party on Earth by John van der Zee
The New Republic, April 27, 1974
THE VERY RICH, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, are different from us. They have pelf and power, exclusive schools, luxurious watering holes and above all, an abiding interest in preserving the economic system that so generously rewards them. One of their favorite retreats is a 2,700-acre wooded wilderness owned by the Bohemian Club of San Francisco. Here every summer, amidst towering redwoods, streams and golden meadows, they gather for two weeks of outdoor merriment. Hiking, canoeing, music and art are all part of the program, but this is not the average YMCA camp. The food is sumptuous, the liquors and cigars superb, and musical and theatrical productions sheer extravaganza.
There are two ways for the curious non-member to approach the Bohemian Grove. One is to marvel at the lavish shenanigans of these all-male, all-white, all-rich adults. The other is to inquire into the social and economic functions of such a pompous fraternity bash. Two books published almost simultaneously cover both perspectives very competently. John van der Zee, a San Francisco novelist, penetrated the gilded grove as a waiter and provides a lively inside account of the goings-on. G. William Domhoff, a power-structure watcher in the tradition of C. Wright Mills, used secondary sources and unnamed informants to develop his argument that the unspoken but actual purpose of the Bohemian Grove is to strengthen the solidarity of the ruling class.
Domhoff, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has been fascinated with the mores and machinations of the very rich for most of his professional life. His first book, Who Rules America? (1967), set forth the not entirely original thesis that America has a cohesive ruling class made up of the owners and managers of the largest corporations. Two later books The Higher Circles (1970) and Fat Cats and Democrats (1972) purport to show precisely how the ruling class sticks together (through prep schools, debutante balls and private clubs) and how it rules (through policy councils and financial control of the two major parties). In these books, as well as in The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats, Domhoff has combined serious analysis with a light, wry touch. He seems almost as bemused by ruling-class antics as he is outraged by its selfish use of power.
Van der Zee, though no theoretician, is a perceptive and fluent writer. He traces the history of the Bohemian Club back to its origin in the 1870s as a gathering place for working San Francisco newspapermen — no newspaper owners allowed. Radicals and genuine bohemians like Jack London, Henry George, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris were early members. The club’s perennial financial difficulties led to the admission of wealthy members who gradually took it over. The bohemian tradition lingers in the club’s concern for art, politics and dramatic pageantry, and in the occasional admission of successful, right-thinking men of letters such as Allen Drury and Herman Wouk.
The club’s two-week summer encampment is today the ne plus ultra of elitist rituals and ribaldry. The first night is devoted to the Cremation of Care, an elaborate Greco-Wagnerian ceremony in which a wooden body representing the cares of important men is tossed upon a flaming bier, releasing the celebrants to shout, sing, hug each other and dance. On later nights come two operetta-like productions called High links and Low links, with casts of hundreds and budgets of $20,000 to $30,000; Little Friday Night and Big Saturday Night bashes, featuring the likes of Bing Crosby, Art Linkletter and Dan Rowan; and lakeside talks with political VIPs such as a Secretary of Defense, an important governor, and occasionally a President or aspiring President. Besides all this, there is almost continuous reveling and, for some, a bit of whoring in nearby towns.
Both Domhoff and van der Zee describe these midsummer prances entertainingly, but Domhoff’s purpose is to do more than entertain: he wants to shed useful light upon the powers-that-be in America. A glance down the membership list of the Bohemian Club indicates that many of those powers are represented. We find Lucius Clay (Lehman Brothers), Rudolph Peterson (Bank of America), Lewis Lapharn (Bankers Trust), Gilbert Humphrey (Hanna Mining), Stephen Bechtel (construction and engineering, one of the richest men in America), Edgar Kaiser (Kaiser Industries), John McCone (ITT, formerly CIA), Gardiner Symonds (Tenneco), David Packard (Hewlett-Packard, formerly Department of Defense), Leonard Firestone (Firestone Rubber), and many more. Domhoff’s thesis is that these Bohemians are not only part of a ruling class based on wealth, but that the ruling class to which they belong is cohesive — it has institutions for keeping its members in touch and in line. The Grove itself is one such institution; others include the exclusive metropolitan clubs (the Links, Knickerbocker and Century in New York, the Somerset in Boston, the Philadelphia, the Pacific Union in San Francisco, the California in Los Angeles) and the prestigious policy-setting groups (the Council on Foreign Relations, the Committee for Economic Development, the Business Council).
Domhoff also argues that the same institutions that promote ruling-class togetherness also help the ruling class get its way with government. Thus, on the 1970 Bohemian Grove guest list, Domhoff found the following pairings: Rudolph Peterson, president of the Bank of America, had as his guest the Secretary of the Treasury, David Kennedy; Paul Rand Dixon, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, was the guest of oilman Edwin Pauley; John Ehrlichman was the guest of Leonard Firestone; Walter Hickel, Secretary of the Interior at the time and deeply involved in the Santa Barbara oil spill, was the guest of Fred Hartley, president of Union Oil, the company responsible for the spill. This does not mean, and Domhoff does not suggest, that any major conspiracies were hatched under the Bohemian redwoods. It does mean that corporate and government leaders enjoy an intimate camaraderie that must inevitably infect policy decisions.
Domhoff is not without his critics, especially among political scientists who contend that his ruling-class-vs. -the-rest-of-us dichotomy is a gross oversimplification. He devotes a chapter to chastising these critics with name lists, matrices and dollops of Agnewesque rhetoric (“The pluralists’ highly constricted way of studying power, which is a methodological monomania of the first order, reflects a theoretical affliction of metaphysical proportions”) Pluralists would probably respond by pointing to fissures and tensions among the very rich, perhaps citing van der Zee’s observation that “the Grove represents mostly old money, family money, or the money of long established corporations and banks. It’s not the new money that Richard Nixon springs from, the Abplanalps, C. Arnholt Smiths and Bebe Rebozos. ”
But no matter. Whatever your theoretical proclivities, reading about the Bohemian Grove is as good a way as any to exorcise Care on a winter night.