“Anyone can aspire to be President of the United States, but few have any hope of becoming President of the Bohemian Club,” Richard Nixon reportedly once said. But for a kid growing up in Sonoma County, California near the Bohemian Grove, the club’s ultra-exclusive campground, getting a service job there was easy.
The elite need a lot of help to unwind in the wilderness. So every year, hundreds of young people shuffle through the Grove’s assembly-line hiring process to spend several weeks bussing their picnic tables and parking their Porsches.
The Bohemian Club, founded in 1872, was originally composed of journalists and musicians (“bohemians”). Over the years, though, the artists’ patrons assumed a larger percentage of the membership. For most of the last century, the Club has been known for its ties to politicians and powerful executives. Members and their guests included Dick Cheney, Walter Cronkite, Donald Rumsfeld, Clint Eastwood and nearly every former GOP president dating back to Eisenhower. In Sonoma County, the Grove, a 2,700-acre expanse of forest owned by the Club, is known for its willingness to hire local kids to work at the three-week-long Encampment each summer, when members come to sleep under the picturesque redwoods, participate in performing arts, and get wasted with their friends.
Most of us were 19, 20, or 21. We had graduated from high school, and were either still living in Sonoma County with our parents, attending the local community college, or on break from school. The majority of those interviewed in this article took entry level positions as servers, bussers or valets. Sonoma has a high cost of living, the third highest rate of youth homelessness for a rural county in the U.S., and lower wages than most other counties in the prosperous Bay Area. These gigs were a welcome source of employment and one of the few jobs in the area that are easy to get without job experience.
“If you don’t get hired at the Grove, you probably have a felony on your record or showed up at the interview looking terrible,” said Olivia, who worked one year as a server and for several years as a valet. “For valet parking there was no training whatsoever, like, none,” she remembered. “They just throw you to the wolves. You’re parking like, $300,000 Bentleys, and they’re just like, ‘Go, fast as you can, fast, fast, fast!”
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 the organization’s 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.
“The Grove is the middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere,” said Devon, who worked there as a server for two summers. The camp was situated outside the tiny, isolated town of Monte Rio (known for its campy vintage sign reading “Monte Rio: Vacation Wonderland”), miles from even a gas station.
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.
The sprawling grounds contain dozens of individual camps, which range from incredibly rustic, with canvas tents on wooden platforms that barely have electricity, to straight up stand-alone structures with personal chefs and full bars. (Camp Mandalay had a funicular.) Members wander between these camps, getting progressively drunker as they go, peeing on trees as they please, even in the designated no-pee zone where the employee shuttles would bring us down to our cars. “Once, as I was driven the quarter mile distance between the dining hall and the parking lot I witnessed a dozen drunk men stumbling around,” said Stephen, who worked as a dishwasher in the kitchen. “They were peeing on trees which were only feet from the road. Others would not yield to our employee truck. We had to drive behind them at a snail’s pace.”
My friends and I were aware of the Grove’s lingering mystique. We knew that powerful conservative figures like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were known to make appearances (though not all of us could recognize them). We’d heard of the Cremation of Care ceremony that kicks off each encampment, where members are decked out in cult-like robes and an effigy is burned on the property’s lake. Many of us had heard the legendary tale of an early meeting for the Manhattan Project which took place at the Grove in 1942. Despite these quirks, working at the Grove was largely like any other boring, shitty service industry job, something to slog through for some spending money.
What truly separated the Grove from most normal jobs was not its prestige, but the long hours and short overall duration. “While working there, it pretty much consumed my life,” Cameron said. “I’d wake up around noon, get ready and go to the Grove, clock in around 2 p.m. I usually wouldn’t get home until midnight or later, and I’d just pass out. Then I’d wake up and start again.”
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.
For the staff, the opposite was true. We were instructed to refer to all members as “gentlemen” and our appearances were highly policed. The night before my first day at the Encampment, I got a dress code reminder email. It excluded any men with hair past their ears or even a little stubble. (“If you show up with a 5 o’clock shadow you will be instructed to use the $0.50 razor to take care of it.”) “The ladies” were forbidden from dangling earrings, long bangs and glitter. This was attached:
“Once I wore a clear piercing in my eyebrow, just to test the waters. I was immediately sent home,” said Megan, who worked as a server for two summers. “I had to take it out for each shift. My face was usually low-key infected.” Bandages were seen as preferable to visible tattoos. “There was this girl who always had this giant bandage on her neck. I was like ‘Oh man, that girl’s neck is fucked up!’ But no, it was just a really shitty tattoo,” Megan said.
There were a few things that made the job special. The asshole customer yelling at you about something out of your control could be our next president. Or it could be Jeb Bush.
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. 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.’”
For male employees with access to the camp itself, more of the Grove’s idiosyncrasies were on display. All entertainment is provided by members or members’ guests, and since they were all men, there was plenty of cross-dressing on stage. A few were professional actors or musicians, but the majority were not.
“It was some of the worst theater I’ve ever seen,” said Will, who worked with the productions. (In 1989, Spy Magazine’s Phillip Weiss wrote that the productions cost as much as $75,000 for a one-night show.) “Sometimes it’s a stage designer that’s able to make an entire set from pieces of garbage, then some guy shows up who’s never done lights before so he just makes everything pink. Then there’s a guy who is on his fifth glass of wine and reading off a script,” said Will, still in disbelief. “And they’re all on the same stage together!”
Kevin, who worked on the maintenance crew for two summers, remembered Henry Kissinger making a cameo in a play that featured a stoner character literally named Toker. “At one point, Kissinger, wearing a big, long-haired wig and a tie-dye shirt, comes stumbling out of Toker’s trailer followed by a huge billow of smoke. He says in a deadpan voice, ‘I never inhaled’. The audience laughed quite a bit.”
The members, though amateurs themselves, weren’t shy about demanding professional-level stage production from the staff. “I’ve seen grown men throw hissy fits about whether they can have a person on stage fall through a trap door. I’m like, there’s no trap door built. So we’d have to find the money to build the trap door,” said Will. “Also, the person you want to drop through the trapdoor is a 78-year-old arthritic man. That’s not safe.”
Chatting with the members wasn’t encouraged (outside of polite customer service stock phrases like “How are you gentlemen doing this evening?”), but staff were told to respond politely if it did occur.
Many of the Grove’s young employees were graduates of the nearby El Molino High School, like me. Only about 10 percent of my class went on to a four-year university. It was even less likely that we’d ever make it out of the state. Devon was an exception—she attended Harvard on a full scholarship.
One evening at the Dining Circle, the members at her table asked Devon what she was doing outside of serving them dinner. She told them she went to Harvard and they cheered with excitement—they belonged to the Harvard camp, one of the many camps within the Grove traditionally associated with a specific university, family or company. “Most of them were really excited. They started asking me, ‘What house are you in? What’s your concentration?’” she said. “Then one of the men who was directly on my left kind of thoughtfully shook his head and said ‘I didn’t think people like you went to Harvard.’”
Over the years, the Grove has been infiltrated countless times by activists, journalists like Philip Weiss, and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. None of them have found anything much of interest, other than a lot of powerful old men partying and urinating on trees.
Even former employees I talked to who had access to the entire campground were disappointed by the lack of intrigue. “After working at the Grove, I really do believe that Area 51 is a boring Nevada test site full of nothing,” Kevin said.
The Bohemian Club’s motto, “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” implies that the Club (and the Grove even more so) is not a place for business or networking. This is taken seriously, so much so that sources reported seeing members yelled at for something as minor as passing a business card. This is what the Cremation of Care ceremony is all about—leaving the worries of the real lives behind as members prepare themselves for three weeks of letting loose in the woods. The tradition of abandoning of business concerns is one reason the conspiracy theories about the camp seem overblown to many employees. “If members back in the Manhattan Project days were anything like they are now and someone said, ‘Are you really building a bomb?’ they’d probably say, ‘Let’s not talk about that, I want to play dominos,’” said Will.
“You were there, it happened here” was another catchphrase heard around the camp. No cell phones, cameras or any kind of recording devices are allowed inside the Grove. (Kevin remembered seeing a member’s cell phone smashed in front of him.) In part, the slogan could be seen a celebration of “living in the moment,” free from the obligations and stressors of the outside world that many of these men help rule. But it was also a wink-wink-nudge-nudge reminder of the private moments that these men shared over their time at the Encampment, the moments that mean everything when you see a familiar face in the Senate or a corporate boardroom.
The longevity of the Grove is a testament to unchanged power. It’s a place where progress and change in society don’t really matter. The same redwoods tower over the camp as did when it was founded nearly 150 years ago. The same systems that kept the rich on top and the poor struggling to survive in the Gilded Age are going strong today.
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 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.
Sophie Weiner is a writer who lives and works in New York.