Redwood Hideaway for the Elite Goes On (NY Times 7/27/10)
A 1989 Bohemian Grove program depicting the noted Cremation of Care Ceremony.
A Lexus-Mercedes caravan of privilege disturbs the sylvan stillness along a Northern California back road, motoring under an honor guard of redwoods that have no choice in the matter. In defiance of nature’s odds, every driver is a man.
This can only mean that it is time again for the annual Bohemian Grove encampment, where, for more than a century, thousands of men have shed wives and cares to hike, listen to lectures, drink, discuss current events, celebrate the arts, drink, share frat-boy traditions, enjoy boon companionship no woman could understand, and drink.
A teary-eyed toast, then, to this wooded womb, followed by soulful consideration of one’s connection to greatness while urinating beside a skyscraping redwood. Who knows what titan of industry, what head of government — what Bohemian! — has relieved himself in this very spot?
Herbert Hoover? Henry Kissinger? Art Linkletter?
To quote the sacred script of the grove’s notorious Cremation of Care ceremony, which includes the requisite summer-camp assembly of robed men, a 40-foot concrete owl, and a body burned in effigy (conspiracy theorists note: it is not a real body):
Once again, midsummer sets us free!
But some of the ritual is missing. For most of the last 30 years, protesters by the dozens and hundreds have agitated outside this dark-wooded lair, denouncing it as a networking opportunity for the male elite, where valuable connections are slyly made over gin fizzes and bra-strap adjustments
Brian Romanoff, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, was a lone protester last week in Monte Rio, Calif.
before the next performance in drag.
Here, in 1942, the Manhattan Project was conceived. Here, in 1967, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan were said to have settled on who would first seek the presidency. And here, in 1981, Caspar Weinberger, then the secretary of defense, gave a “lakeside talk” that seemed to hint strongly of the military buildup to follow.
Down with the military-industrial complex!
Yet the ritual on this day includes only one protester, bearded, lanky Brian Romanoff, 28, who has been working mostly alone since the two-week encampment began on July 16. He says he has adopted a nonconfrontational approach, better to spread the truth about the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings.
Two words: controlled demolition.
Mr. Romanoff says he prefers working alone; it’s less threatening. But as late-model cars growl past his al fresco office, he holds up his pamphlets in vain. Men in a blue Mercedes convertible wave in frantic, mock friendship, but do not stop. One driver does slow down, but only because he mistakes the protester for a grove employee.
“Welcome,” Mr. Romanoff says. “Check-in is right up ahead.”
But why has interest flagged in the goings-on at Bohemian Grove, where the likes of the singer Jimmy Buffett, Colin L. Powell and former President George W. Bush are said to assemble? Perhaps we should ask the encampment’s mascot, the owl of wisdom (and no, conspiracy theorists, the owl does not represent a demonic idol or any potato-chip concern):
O! Owl, prince of all mortal wisdom, we beseech thee: What gives?
The answer, boys: Mary Moore, 75, the area’s silver-haired earth mother of activism, is focused on other matters. So it’s just not the same.
A former beauty queen from San Luis Obispo, Ms. Moore moved to a wooded Sonoma County enclave in the mid-1970s. Although active in liberal causes, she knew nothing of the annual elite-male getaway in her community until she read “The Bohemian Grove and Other Retreats: A Study in Ruling-Class Cohesiveness,” by the sociologist G. William Domhoff.
Before you could say O Great Owl of Bohemia, everybody knew of this two-week sleep-away camp for about 2,500 members and guests of the Bohemian Club, in San Francisco.
Predominantly white, affluent and Republican, they stage theatrical acts, enjoy like-minded company, and imbibe, amid mature redwoods and old posters from past gatherings. Some of the 125 camps within have their own valets, and there is even a gift shop.
The opening Cremation of Care ceremony, an elaborate production in which hooded characters burn “Dull Care” in effigy at an altar, is meant as a cathartic release of life’s worries. And the club’s motto, “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” reflects the prohibition against any conducting of business.
Call them crazy, but the protesters still believed that if you corral thousands of privileged men and throw in some fine wine and a few s’mores, they cannot help but make valuable connections and, occasionally, public policy.
Ms. Moore and other Northern California activists gleefully exposed the private encampment. They publicized the membership lists. They held Resurrection of Care ceremonies. They helped to slip in reporters; some returned with reports of drunken, gray-haired sophomores, while at least one saw evidence of the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati and Beelzebub himself.
The protests waxed and waned over the years, but always with Ms. Moore at the fore. “Bohemian Grove allowed us to build coalitions,” she recalls. “Because whatever your issue was, someone in there was making money off it.”
The protests prompted the secretive Bohemians to hire a public relations consultant, Sam Singer, who patiently explained that members come from all walks of life; that the two-decade waiting list for membership could be expedited for those with unique talents (“If you play the violin, let me know”); that there is no human sacrifice.
According to Mr. Singer, who was invited to join the club three years ago after representing it for 12, the annual event creates hundreds of local jobs, uses local wine and food, and culminates with a celebrity-studded variety show in Monte Rio that raises money for local causes.
“This is two weeks, over the course of a year, when a group of gentlemen enjoy close friendships, current events and theatrical productions,” Mr. Singer says. “Without needing to see it on the front page of The Times or The Post.”
And another thing. “There is nobody wandering around with no clothes on,” Mr. Singer says, although he does admit to one Bohemian habit. “People do urinate on redwoods,” he says — not as part of any ritual, but “as the need becomes necessary.”
Ms. Moore was never bothered much by the urinating, or the drinking, or even the Cremation of Care nonsense. She was mostly concerned with the corporate influence on government, and what she most wanted was for this silly boys’ club to make public the transcripts of the “lakeside talks” delivered by the Weinbergers of the world.
Not going to happen, Mr. Singer says.
Ms. Moore no longer protests outside Bohemian Grove. Partly because she has dedicated herself to other issues, like police brutality, but mostly because her daughter died a few years ago, and she wants to spend more time with her grandchildren.
Besides, she says, it is time for younger people, like Brian Romanoff, to stand outside the gates, mulling the security cameras. And the Internet has helped to spread the word about Bohemian Grove, which was always the point of the roadside protests.
As late-model cars wend through the redwoods five miles away, Ms. Moore stays home, where her archives of activism — 50 years’ worth of pamphlets and books, posters and ephemera — fill two small buildings.
Much of it will be donated one day to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and to the Sonoma County Historical Society.
A Shirley Chisholm for President poster. A file labeled “Overcoming Racism in Sonoma County.” A pair of platform shoes. And various items from Bohemian Grove that reek of the musty woods.