The Bohemian Club

Historical Essay

by Nancy J. Peters


"There are two elements, at least, that are essential to Bohemianism," George Sterling once wrote in a letter to Jack London. "The first is devotion or addiction to one of the Seven Arts; the other is poverty. . . . I like to think of my Bohemians as young, as radical as their outlook on art and life, as unconventional . ." (Walker 1966)

About as far as you can go from poverty, art, and radicalism is San Francisco's Bohemian Club, of which both Sterling and Jack London, ironically, were once members. Organized in 1872 as a drinking club for male journalists, The Bohemian Club's membership soon solicited wealthy businessmen to support its theatricals and other activities. Since World War II, this official bohemia has been composed of the city's political and financial elite, along with some establishment writers and commercial artists.

Members meet in town (to hear readings of poetry by the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edwin Markham) and also at the Bohemian Grove, a notoriously exclusive retreat on the Russian River that hosts an annual summer exercise in ruling-class cohesiveness, where CEOs and directors of the Fortune 500 companies camp out in secrecy with presidents and congressmen, cabinet members, and Pentagon brass. (Domhoff, 1974)

excerpted from "The Beat Generation and San Francisco's Culture of Dissent" in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (San Francisco: City Lights Books)