THE CHOSEN FEW
S.F.'s exclusive clubs carry on traditions of fellowship, culture -- and discrimination
On Saturday, some 2,000 CEOs and politicos and arty types arrived at the cool redwoods and lily-choked lake of the Grove, the famous Russian River playground of the powerful Bohemian Club.
They say it's the place to be seen in America in July.
Except, of course, you can't see them.
Signs abound: No Thru Traffic. No Trespassing. Members and Guests Only. No Turn Around. Sentries scan the paths from above with binoculars, helped out by infrared sensors.
And what are those important men doing out there for 17 days behind that elaborate security?
Slipping into frocks and putting on pageants. The Bohemian Club, a beguiling mix of ultra-power hangout and high school play, is one of several elite private clubs in San Francisco, curious islands of conservatism amid a forest of Kerry for President signs.
Of these, the Big Four are the Bohemian Club, the stodgy Pacific-Union Club atop Nob Hill, the gigantic sports-minded Olympic Club, and the tiny ultra-exclusive San Francisco Golf Club straddling the line between San Francisco and Daly City.
Two admit women. Two do not. One admits women in town, but not in the country -- and not after dark.
None admits the poor, except in white jackets.
Or so sources say. Information is not easy to come by. It's secret stuff, very hush-hush. Members consent to talk to a reporter only if their names are withheld, and then say only the most laudatory things. They're just following the rules. The bylaws for the Pacific-Union Club, for example, read: "No information regarding any Club activity or function shall be released by anyone to the media."
Also, one suspects, secrecy is part of the fun.
It's impossible to talk about private clubs in this day and age without sounding censorious, but people have always liked having the right to choose who joins their private associations. Mills College in Oakland resisted a demand to let male students in. Many book clubs ban men because the women want to read "The Hours" and the men would want to read the new Alexander Hamilton biography. There are a number of fancy women's clubs here, such as the Town & Country (said to be the female Pacific-Union Club).
We all like to gang together with people like us, and men seem to like it even more than women do. If there were only five men in all of North America, three of them would sneak out behind the house and start a club. The other two would not be asked to join.
Clubs are reproved for excluding various sets of people, but excluding is, after all, the point. If there is to be an "us," there has to be a "not us." (Or your club is Costco.)
And as one member remarked, when it comes to women, "It's not excluding. It's getting away from."
When Augusta National in Georgia was pressured, unsuccessfully, to accept women two years ago, the appropriately named Mary Anne Case, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, couldn't think of a reason for its refusal to admit females "that doesn't involve somehow girls having cooties."
These relics of the age of exclusion seem to be in no danger of going the way of other 19th century institutions. John van der Zee, who lives in Healdsburg, posed as a waiter at the Bohemian Grove one summer and wrote the 1974 book "The Greatest Men's Party on Earth." "When I did the book," he said, "I thought it would be valedictory. A way of life that was ending."
That was 30 years ago. Today these clubs have long waiting lists. Paul B. "Red" Fay Jr., former undersecretary of the Navy who's on the roster of the San Francisco Golf Club (SFGC), the Bohemian Club (BC) and the Pacific-Union Club (PU), said, somewhat tautologically but sincerely, "The reason there's such a big demand is because everybody wants to get in them. "
"PU is the pre-eminent club," said Sally Debenham, a San Francisco socialite. "The crème de la crème. Big, big heavy players in the PU Club. They take it seriously, the little darlings."
The Pacific-Union's prohibitions have been characterized, said Merla Zellerbach, as "no women, no Democrats, no reporters."
It's old guard, old money -- and many of the members are just plain old. The joke is that guest speakers must stop "when you hear the canes rattle." It's housed in what travel writer Jan Morris described as an "inconceivably gloomy" mansion standing on a block by itself on the crest of Nob Hill.
Belonging to a club like this says a lot about who you are. Tell someone you're a member of the Pacific-Union Club, and you are saying you made it through a rigorous vetting to filter out the "not us."
One local intellectual property lawyer joined seven years ago when he was 40. The selection process included a preliminary statement on his behalf by a Proposer and Seconder after which he got 12 sponsoring members and then took 10 members of the committee to dinner individually.
One member described how it feels to play squash at the Pacific-Union Club and have a glass of wine afterward with his male friends. "It's an incalculatingly wonderful feeling, that of belonging," he said.
Mostly, the members are old white guys. They want younger faces at all these clubs, but by the time people work their way up the waiting lists, the dew is off the bloom. The lawyer who went through the lengthy process to join the PU is also on a waiting list for the Bohemian Club. He's been on it for 20 years.
Even stringent latter-day lunch policies haven't discouraged membership. Like many clubs, the PU has always asked members to dine there so many times a quarter. But members can no longer deduct the meals as a business expense. That's illegal if a club discriminates based on age, sex or race. In fact, club rules forbid talking business at all -- or even reading the business page. Architect George Livermore, who belongs to this club, the Bohemian Club and the Olympic Club, said, "They recently put out a notice saying it's been called to the attention of managers that papers have been brought to the table! " He said the place is now almost empty at lunch.
Women can't lunch in the main dining room, only in a side room. When venture capitalist Annette Campbell-White worked for Hambrecht & Quist, the firm had a luncheon at the PU Club to welcome new partners and told her she couldn't attend -- then she could, but had to come in the back door. One partner accused her of ruining the party and suggested, she recalled, that next time she "take a business trip."
Even the wives of members are asked to come in by the back door, Debenham said. She had foot problems once and used the front. It felt strange. "I was so trained to come in the back door."
Livermore doesn't know why women can't come as guests. "Anything you include women in is always exciting," he said, noting the Olympic Club was smart to always allow women as guests. "Now that women are almost people," he joked, "why don't the other clubs do that?"
The San Francisco Golf Club is so shy, Debenham said, it won't give out directions. "Even members get lost trying to find the place."
Notice to lost members: You can find those undulating greens and gingerbready clubhouse behind those unnaturally tall eucalyptus trees in back of the "John Daly Blvd" freeway sign on I-280 just past San Francisco State. Slow at the sign for Thomas Moore Church and drive past the discreetly blocking shrubbery until you see the small sign: "SF Golf Club, Private."
This club wishes to continue to fly way, way under the radar. Calls were not returned. So our information has not been confirmed or denied by anybody representing the club.
David Burgin, former editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner, said, "All your tycoons are over there." But that's not true. The club recently said no to one tycoon -- Scott McNealy, the CEO of Sun Microsystems. He was named the best CEO golfer in the country by Golf Digest magazine. Whatever this club is holding out for, it's not members with a great swing.
Neither the club nor McNealy cared to comment. One should note, though, that McNealy's other sport is hockey, and computer money is new, not old. And, as you see, he brings the attention of the press with him.
"It's the most difficult club to get into," said Paul Fay Jr., member since 1946.
"It's just impossible," said Livermore, who has tried to get friends in. "They say, 'Forget it!' "
Which means forget using the club's fabled fast course overlooking the windy Pacific. Designed by the revered A.W. Tillinghast, it's ranked among the best in the world.
"The women are allowed to play on certain days at certain times," Fay said. "I think Thursday is their special day when they play in the morning, and then Sunday afternoons they can go out there and have their social activities and everything they want to run."
Fifteen years ago, this club lost its role as host to PGA golf events because it had no minority members, either. It has not returned to hosting public tournaments.
But clubs make sacrifices to keep their membership the way they like it. Farther south, Cypress Point, which Burgin described as "stinking rich," withdrew from the AT&T Pebble Beach tournament it had hosted for years. "Rather than admit minorities, they shattered their own tradition. How could you have that tournament without TV pictures of the 16th hole at Cypress Point?" Burgin asked. The 16th hole there is 230 yards airborne across an inlet.
The San Francisco Golf Club, tiny and with no public functions, can be as persnickety as it likes about whom it lets in. And whom it keeps out.
"They don't take Jewish people, which is outrageous," Livermore said. Others familiar with the club said this is true. Fay preferred not to comment on the policy but, when asked if there were any Jewish members, said, "I don't think they have one right now."
"The Bohemian Grove is woodsy," said Astrid Hoffman of Tiburon, whose husband belongs to the St. Francis Yacht Club. "They have these little houses or clubs. They're like Cub Scouts with their dens. They try to outdo each other in drinks and food, have private concerts and get-togethers."
There are 125 different camps -- Toyland, Dog House, Sons of Toil, etc. George H.W. Bush will be in Hill Billies, along with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The bylaws say that at least 100 members must be connected professionally with literature, art, music or drama. Such "associate" members pay much less - - but must sing for their supper, in an arrangement worthy of a Medici.
"If you're a theatrical type, you shoot to the top of the list," Debenham said. "The Bohemian Grove is marvelously eclectic."
Every year at the Grove, a freshly written play with a cast of hundreds is performed the last Sunday of the retreat. "We know in advance that the hero will be a king or commander adored by his men, and that he will see his duty and do it," said Healdsburg author van der Zee of what he calls "these lumbering pageants."
One year, San Francisco novelist Herb Gold said he was offered an associate membership if he would help write the Grove play. Gold took fellow writer Earnest Gaines ("A Lesson Before Dying"), an African American, to a Wednesday night entertainment at the six-story downtown club. Five members, he said, were in blackface. One member clapped Gaines on the back. "Looks like you've played a little football," Gold heard him say. Shortly thereafter, the writers took their leave. "I guess I'm not clubbable," Gold said wryly.
Those who are clubbable find themselves strolling past faces any American would recognize. "Never mind just plain CEOs and presidents," Hoffman said, "they have president presidents" -- such as former President George H.W. Bush, who has brought his sons.
William F. Buckley was a member until he resigned last year. He'd play Bach pieces on the harpsichord at dusk on Friday nights (to campers who'd have preferred the Cal fight song, one member told me).
The arts are a genuine part of the spirit of this club. But a bit more goes on. In 1971, President Richard Nixon, a member since 1953, was to be the lakeside speaker, but reporters had finally raised a ruckus about a sitting president giving an off-the-record speech at the Grove. Nixon sent sugary regrets in a telegram that hangs in the city clubhouse today, saying that anyone could be president of the United States, but only a few could aspire to be president of the Bohemian Club.
Privately, he said to domestic affairs adviser John Ehrlichman and Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman (and the hidden tape recorder) in the Oval Office that May: "The Bohemian Grove, which I attend from time to time -- it is the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine, with that San Francisco crowd. I can't shake hands with anybody from San Francisco."
That testy remark could have been pique. He didn't get to deliver his speech, and, as van der Zee noted, the Grove, its powerful members pledged to secrecy, provides an ideal audience on which to test a major policy address. "Every elected official knows there's no place more conducive to the conduct of political affairs than a gathering that has been declared nonpolitical," he said.
Many have taken advantage. At www.sonomacountyfreepress.com, the Web site of the protest group called the Bohemian Grove Action Network (their logo depicts a tuxedoed patrician in a top hat swilling a martini as he straddles an MX missile) shows that speakers who have "given a Lakeside" include Vice President Dick Cheney, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, George H.W. Bush and Michel Rocard, former prime minister of France.
Nelson Rockefeller gave up a run for the presidency after his speech failed to move his fellow campers. And this is where, according to van der Zee and many other published sources, Bush asked Cheney to be his running mate in 2000, where Nixon advised Ronald Reagan to stay out of the coming presidential race in 1967, where Edward Teller and others in the Manhattan Project mapped out the atomic bomb in the autumn of 1942.
Mary Moore of Occidental, a founder of the Action Network, which has helped organize demonstrations outside the Grove since 1980, said the speeches -- sorry, talks -- have been hard to acquire because her source inside moved on and the club took to locking the texts of the speeches in the guardhouse. (She did send us the 2002 membership roster.)
The club would like all this secret stuff to stay secret, which means that the curious are always breaking in (Mother Jones, National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, CBS).
Media CEOs have had to interrupt their conversations to throw out their own reporters. When Dirk Mathison, San Francisco bureau chief for People magazine, sneaked onto the grounds, a Time Warner executive recognized him and walked him to the gate. The piece never ran.
In fact, whole newspaper empires have been flung out. The club has an offshoot called the Family that came into being after the Hearst-owned Examiner ran a 1901 piece in which Ambrose Bierce predicted the assassination of President William McKinley. When McKinley was assassinated soon after, the club threw out its Hearst people and removed its newspapers from the clubrooms. The Family flourishes to this day, letting all kinds of people in and supporting a hospital in Nicaragua. Its new members are called Babies, and the president is the Father. "There is no mother," a member said. "The babies are brought by the stork."
Curiously, the Bohemian Club was started by newspapermen much like the ones now landing in a heap of dust outside the gate. In 1872, an editorial writer for The Chronicle proposed a club so reporters could meet somewhere other than saloons.
Van der Zee said, "It's not uncommon for founding principles to become institutional embarrassments, but few social clubs have made such a turnabout."
It is called "social" because business is the last thing on anyone's mind at this club to which hundreds of CEOs and former and current government officials belong.
"Oh, please," Debenham said. "The contacts are amazing."
Ehrlichman once told a reporter, "Once you've spent three days with someone in an informal situation, you have a relationship -- a relationship that opens doors and makes it easier to pick up the phone."
(This is reportedly called the "Mandalay effect," after the camp where the Bechtels stay, along with Kissinger, Colin Powell and San Francisco's own George Shultz.)
Women don't get to experience the Mandalay effect because they aren't allowed in, except on certain family weekends, and then they must be off the grounds by dusk. It's not clear what will happen to them if they're not. Maybe it has never happened.
"Periodically a wife makes noise, and then it dies down," Hoffman said.
She believes men need retreats like this. "It's that Masonic thing, the touching of the ring. Goes back to before the Crusades. The men feel safer without women. It's the same thing in a way when women get together. First it's jolly and then gets weird. Clannish."
The importance of male bonding aside, it seems wrong to some for all this political talk to be going on with the press and half the population absent. Case finds it alarming that no women are at the Grove, especially when the policy discussions concern them. "People I know -- definitely not friends of mine -- say they've discussed the role women should be playing in the armed forces at the Grove."
What's the law on this? The Supreme Court has held that the Constitution protects two kinds of associations: private or intimate associations (fewer than 400 members, such as the SFGC) and expressive associations formed to put forth a principle or idea. "You have to look at how big the club is, how committed to an ideology, and how exclusion is necessary matters to its purposes," Case said. "The Bohemians are principally Republicans. They discuss politics. They have, as it were, a point of view. That may qualify them as an expressive association." And don't forget this club has artistic leanings. It expresses itself in a Druid-like opening ceremony called Cremation of Care that features red pointy hats, torches and Care getting badly singed.
Case has heard about that and has her own theory about why the club is all male. "The things they do would look too silly if women saw them."
The huge athletic Olympic Club, with two golf courses by the ocean and a more tie-and-suit headquarters downtown, is the oldest and one of the most famous clubs in the country, and one of the biggest.
Of the three clubs he belongs to, this is George Livermore's favorite. He lives across the street from the downtown site. "I go swimming at the Olympic Club and get drunk next door at the Bohemian Club," he said, merrily.
His grandfather, Horatio P. Livermore, was a founder of the Olympic Club back in 1860 in a downtown firehouse and added two gorgeous 18-hole golf courses by the ocean in the 1920s. It has since hosted four U.S. Open championships.
Like many clubs, it was begun by people who couldn't get in elsewhere -- in this case, Germans, Italians, Irish and Catholics.
"I used to play golf there with a florist and another guy who sells vegetables and hauls lettuce and celery around the backseat of a Rolls-Royce," said Burgin, a member since 1969. "It's not a place merely for the rich and the swells."
There's a 10-year wait for golf memberships. The lakeside clubhouse was designed by Arthur Brown, who designed San Francisco's City Hall and the Opera House.
The club has lots of sport teams, bay swims, dinners, power pacing classes, an annual hike and dip on Ocean Beach, relays around Lake Merced and crab feasts. "It's the best club in the world," said Stuart Kinder, president last year. "We have a broad-based membership that crosses all social and economic lines. You don't have to be a blue blood to be a member. You don't have to be wealthy."
Marcus Musante, 25, is glad to have joined as a junior member, though he got scolded for wearing cargo pants to a golf lesson. "People are talkative. It's a social atmosphere. When you're young, just starting out, there're few things as valuable as talking to an older professional. It's nice to pick their brains, and at the club they're willing to be open and share their pearls."
When Musante told an older member that he was interning at a district attorney's office, "he recommended for me to go into a government agency right out of school and try to cure the world of its problems until you realize you can't."
Until 1992, women could golf but not go to the downtown club. That year it was discovered the club had three holes on public property. Louise Renne, then city attorney, said, "We told them, 'Stop discriminating or play with 15 holes.' " Women now are full members.
"These days, athletic clubs would be mad to exclude women -- they're so much more involved in athletics than they ever have been," said Ron Fimrite, who's at work on a history of the club. The club is building new facilities on Sutter Street, largely for the women.
Burgin doesn't go to the Olympic Club much anymore. "When girls come in, it flat changes," he mourned. "Used to be, you'd go in and the ballgame's on, tablecloths are plain, no flowers on the tables. You can sit down at anybody's table without formality, yell across the room and talk dirty. So goddamn annoying. Breaks my heart.
"Ferchrissakes, can't a man have a place to go?"
Addresses: 624 Taylor St., and Bohemian Grove, 75 miles northwest of San Francisco near Guerneville
Membership: 2,700 (one member per acre)
Waiting list: 3,000
Average number of years on waiting list: 15 to 20
Members: George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, George Shultz, Alexander Haig, Colin Powell, rocker Steve Miller, Clint Eastwood.
Slogan: "Weaving Spiders Come Not Here."
Books to read about it: "The Bohemian Grove" by G. William Domhoff and "The Greatest Men's Party on Earth" by John van der Zee.
Accept minorities: Yes, especially if they can play an instrument.
Best place to spy: Put your canoe in the Russian River at Northwood, just west of Johnson's Beach in Guerneville, and head downstream past their floating boathouse. The Bohemians couldn't buy the whole river. One suspects they are irked by this fact.
San Francisco Golf Club
Address: Brotherhood Way and Junipero Serra Boulevard
Good movie for them to watch: "Gentlemen's Agreement"
Historical tidbit: Hole 7 is site of the last official duel in California, between Sen. David S. Broderick and California Supreme Court Justice David S. Terry in 1859
Address: 1000 California St.
Founded: 1881, when the Pacific Club (1852) and the Union Club (1854) joined ranks.
Members: David Packard, Ronald Pelosi, Peter McGowan, Henry Kaiser, Walter Haas, five Bechtels
General manager: Tom Gaston Jr.
Admit women: No
Dues: "They keep raising them because nobody cares," said member George Livermore.
Protests: Four years ago, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence carried huge altered portraits of the members dressed in gowns to complain that the city's transvestites had no access to the club. "After all, just because you have a dress on doesn't mean you don't like to enjoy the club's osso bucco and Grgich reds," noted Supervisor Tom Ammiano.
Movies: Has a cameo in "Vertigo."
Addresses: 524 Post St. and 599 Skyline Blvd. on Highway 35 near Palo Mar Stables
Slogan: "O Realm Where Stalwart Manhood Rules."
Stalwart womanhood: Yes, since 1992
Web site: www.olyclub.com
Fun facts: The women's Metropolitan Club and the Olympic Club talked about merging about 20 years ago. The Metropolitan Club (formerly the Women's Athletic Club) turned the boys down.
This week's question:
Should private clubs be discriminating on the basis of sex, race and religion when choosing members?
-- Yes. Through fund-raisers and donations, the benefits of these clubs extend far beyond their memberships.
-- Yes. Members of these groups receive no government funding and are allowed to choose their associates.
-- No. Because many members are influential in government, law and business, it is unfair that their discussions are private.
-- No, but these clubs are relics and probably will die of natural causes within a few years.
Vote at sfgate.com/polls
E-mail Adair Lara at email@example.com.