The Piss-Poor Secrets of the Bohemian GroveS

Is there any mystique left to Bohemian Grove, the industrialists' clubhouse among the redwoods north of San Francisco? A 61-year-old Vanity Fair writer snuck in, joining a tradition almost as old as the Grove.

Alex Shoumatoff set off for the Grove last year. He was searching for evidence that the Bohemian Club, a venerable society of some 2,500 old, wealthy businessmen and powerful politicians (Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, left, were members), was engaging in illegal logging of the ancient trees under which it holds its annual meeting. He got arrested and photographed embarrassingly, but not before he caught the beginning of the Club's opening ritual, the Cremation of Care.

He joins a long line of Bohemian invaders, fictional and otherwise.

  • Michael Tolliver, a recurring character in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series blithely swam his way into the Grove.
  • Spy magazine, founded by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, sent Phillip Weiss to infiltrate the Grove in 1989 and he discovered a sign reading: "Gentlemen please! No pee pee here!"
  • Two years later, when a People reporter managed to get inside ("It's easier to penetrate the Bohemian Grove than the Time-Life Building," he remarked), the magazine killed the story — partly because he ran into his bosses, partly because the story was already old.
  • In 2000, conspiracy-minded Texas radio host Alex Jones made his way in.
  • And in 2006, OC Weekly got an employee to talk, revealing that members like to (still) drink and (still) urinate on trees.

The lure of the Grove for infiltrators is the notion that they'll discover some cabal in the act of running the world, complete with Satanic rituals. Good luck with that! As Forbes pointed out a decade ago, the Bohemian Grove is pretty much Burning Man for old dudes, the main difference being that the Grovers start their party by roasting a giant effigy, and the Burners end their party with one.

If there's no real mystery left to the Grove, then why is it such a perpetual lure? The no-journalists-allowed rule and the heavy guard are tantalizing. But I think it's more this: In an age of oversharing, the notion that there are any people left actually interested in guarding their privacy is fascinating. The members of the Bohemian Club may not actually leave care behind. But they do escape Twitter.