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Bohemian Club Unyielding : Bastion of the Powerful Clings to Male Mystique

May 26, 1987|DAN MORAIN | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Richard M. Nixon, one of the more famous members of the nation's most famous men's club, once put it something like this: Anyone can aspire to be President of the United States, but few have any hope of becoming president of the Bohemian Club.

For most of this century, the Bohemian Club--both at its six-story brownstone near downtown San Francisco and its pristine 2,700-acre redwood grove on the Russian River--has been a meeting place for the nation's richest and most powerful men, emphasis on the word men .

"That's where the power brokers are," said Prof. Michael Burns of Florida's Nova University Law Center, who has studied the club. "The roster is extraordinary . . . particularly during the Reagan Administration. On a national level, I don't think there is anything like it."

It's one of the few places outside of Washington where one may see Ronald Reagan, George Bush, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger together, where businessmen and self-made millionaires can rub elbows with the likes of Henry Kissinger.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 24, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
A May 26 article in The Times on the Bohemian Club of San Francisco incorrectly stated that there are 2,700 members. There are actually 2,300 members. Also, the article did not mention that for some members, the membership fee of $8,500 and monthly dues of $110 are reduced or waived.

Perhaps because its roster is so impressive, because it is located in this most open of cities, or because so many political leaders here are women, the club for years has been a juicy target for lawsuits and brickbats aimed at its no-women-allowed membership policy. Critics are convinced that high-powered business contacts are made there, and that since women are excluded they can never compete equally with men in business.

The 2,700-member club is not completely immune to social pressure. Over time, it dropped unwritten prohibitions by admitting Jews and some blacks, Asians and Latinos. The ranks of Democrats have also increased. However, women are different, members say. Changing times and legal attacks may force some men's clubs to admit women. But at the Bohemian Club, the board of directors has not so much as formally talked about tinkering with the section of the bylaws that bars women--and has no plans to do so, club Vice President George Elliot said.

"It is a gentlemen's club. It has always been that way," he said.

Motto Cited

Members say women miss no golden business opportunity. They cite their motto, "Weaving spiders come not here," to underscore that shop talk is frowned upon. It is a social club, they say, and an outlet for businessmen who fancy themselves to be talented, or at least to be patrons of the arts, for they entertain each other in weekly skits, readings or musical performances.

"I guess I feel totally unalarmed," a member said of efforts to open membership to women. He said that the club's mystique would disappear "as soon as it is monkeyed with."

The member, who runs the San Francisco office of a national business firm and writes on the side, finished lunch in the club's dining room, and then did something few men would dare do in any other restaurant--lit a big, fat, smelly cigar. In the clubhouse, it seemed perfectly natural.

After a chat with club mates, he walked, cigar in hand, toward the library and paused at the entrance where photos hang of seven special Bohemians--Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon, Gerald Ford and Reagan, Republicans all, and all members of the club.

He smoked with impunity in the 13,000-volume library, on the elevator, down hallways, past the domino room, the reading room and the massive bar (called the cartoon room for its member-drawn artwork). Among his musings along the way: The reason women will never be accepted as Bohemians is, simply, that "they never were little boys."

Membership practices have taken a small toll. A few men have quit, some will not join and some groups no longer use it for social functions. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, for one, quietly stopped holding its annual holiday party there in 1979 after several judges, including a black, a Jew and a few women appointed by President Jimmy Carter, protested that it was a symbol of discrimination, two judges said.

Sympathy Toward Women

Some members, like Warren Christopher, an attorney at O'Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles and Carter's deputy secretary of state, said he "would support a more inclusive membership." Los Angeles Times Publisher Tom Johnson, another member, also said women should be admitted. But he said he is in the minority on the issue and that such a dramatic policy change is "doubtful" in his lifetime.

So far, the strongest attack on the Bohemian Club is a suit by the state Fair Employment and Housing Commission. It is aimed at forcing the club to hire women among the 300 employees who attend to the needs of the 2,000 men who attend the fabled midsummer retreat at Bohemian Grove. After losing in state courts, the club plans an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Club leaders say privately they doubt that the court will review the relatively narrow case.

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