“Bohemians below are Archangels above” The Bohemian Club—Part One

The Bohemian Club grew out of a Sunday salon hosted by James F. Bowman of the San Francisco Chronicle. The original gatherings were planned as Sunday breakfasts at Bowman’s home on Russian Hill, though they often lasted through dinner and involved proportionate amounts of wine and rant, the tablecloth becoming covered with the inspired doodlings of its guests.

Within a year the Sunday festivals had tripled in size, attracting some of the most talented writers and artists of the city, including the great illustrator Jules Tavernier and the columnist Ambrose Bierce. The salon’s popularity also succeeded in attracting its share of poseurs and freeloaders, creating a need for a private meeting space and a well-managed guest list.

James F. Bowman

In 1872 Bowman relocated the club to the Astor House at the corner of Webb and Sacramento Streets renting rooms recently vacated by a convivial association known as the Jolly Corks. The early Bohemian Club was a men’s club of the meanest stripe–a sparsely furnished, stogie-scented parlor in the nastiest district of the city–the Barbary Coast.

A club charter was drafted promoting alcohol, argument and “good-fellowship among journalists.” The objects of the club were, “the promotion of social and intellectual intercourse between journalists and other writers, artists, actors and musicians, professional or amateur…”

Of the 24 charter members, 17 were affiliated with newspapers including Daniel O’Connell of The Bulletin, Sands Forman of The Examiner, Thomas Newcomb of The Call, Henry George, founding editor of The Evening Post, who became one of the most widely read writers on economics in the nineteenth century, and Crocker family nemesis Ambrose Bierce, who’s “Prattle” was the most vicious newspaper column in the city. Col J.C. Cremony of The Commercial Herald made the motion for the name “Bohemian.” The moniker had become synonymous with “newspaper writer” on both coasts after the Civil War. A minority fretted about the ugly implications of the name–cheap wine, stringy hair, unpaid rent, contagious diseases… To quiet objections to the dreadful word, the definition was adroitly altered from an unwashed ruffian of artistic inclinations to “a man of genius who refuses to cramp his life in the Chinese shoe of conventionality, whose purse is ever at the disposal of his friends, and who lives generously, gaily, carefree, and as far from the sordid, scheming world of respectability as the south pole is from the north.”

The Bohemian Club was not just a clique of fashionable beaux and gamblers and became much more than a sanctuary from the womenfolk. The Bohemians saw themselves as a breed apart–a brotherhood of ink-stained geniuses, the artistic elite of San Francisco. They voted to keep out rich people, publishers, and other natural enemies of the Muse. In an early meeting they blackballed the president of the Bank of California, declaring that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Bohemia.

They moved into better quarters on Pine Street on January 24, 1877. The owl was made the sacred symbol of the organization. St. John Nepomuck, a Czechoslovakian from geographic Bohemia, who died rather than tell a woman’s secret, became the club’s adopted good saint. “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” became their official motto.

But the Bohemians–being bohemians–couldn’t pay their bills. So before long they reluctantly invited businessmen with professed avant garde yearnings into the ranks, and within a few years “men of affairs” began dominating the club roster. Oscar Wilde, visiting the club as part of a transcontinental tour of America in 1882, was moved to remark, “I have never seen so many well-dressed, well-fed, businesslike-looking Bohemians in all my life.” He later famously drank his Bohemian hosts under the table.

The Bohemian Club enjoyed a classic American success: up from poverty to affluence, from obscurity to fame, from crudity to elegance. Naturally, there were revolts. The earliest occurred in the fall of 1880. A group of painters and writers issued a proclamation to the Bohemian Club charging that “the present day is not as the past days, the salt has been washed out of the Club by commercialism, the chairs are too easy and the food too dainty, and the true Bohemian spirit has departed.” The rabble rousers resigned the Club and formed the “Pandemonium.” Their slogan: “None of Your Silk Plush Imitation Bohemia!” The attempt by this band of desperate nostalgiacs, rebelling against “the trespass of the money-changers” failed miserably and the Pandemonium was closed before the first month was over. Many of the artists depended upon the moneybags of the Bohemian Club for their portrait and panel commissions. Many of the editors and reporters were in vassalage to the politicians who ran both the municipal affairs and the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. The rebels had to come back, their heads bowed. True eccentricity and bohemianism retreated into art studios, like the Jules Tavernier-Joseph Strong studio, a favorite hangout for the teenaged Aimée Crocker.

Ina Coolbrith, first poet laureate in the U.S.

The early Bohemian Club included a few token women. At a literary dinner on May 5, 1874, Josephine Donna Smith, aka Ina Coolbrith, aka the first California Poet Laureate, was elected honorary member of the Bohemian Club, the second of only four women ever voted in. Coolbrith was the niece and later also the step-daughter of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith, when her mother married the famous polygamist. Coolbrith was for eight years the librarian of the Bohemian Club. When she died the possibility of women as members of the club died with her. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bret Harte and Mark Twain were also honorary members. Jack London was a second generation member. Celebrity guests included not only Oscar Wilde but superstars Robert Louis Stevenson, Edwin Booth, Sir Henry Irving, Rudyard Kipling and later Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Midsummer Retreat

On June 28, 1878, nearly 100 men took the train for the first outing of the club, an all-night picnic on Papermill Creek. They spent the afternoon roaming the woods, disporting in the stream or idling in the sun, each according to his bent. They gathered at nightfall around the campfire and listening to songs and stories. It would become a yearly tradition.

Poet and travel writer, Charles Stoddard wrote about the jaunt:

It was the Lord’s Day, and a hot one, and there was scarcely water enough to go around. Baths in the brook at sunrise—baths repeated at brief intervals throughout the day. Frequent appearances of the ‘natural buff’ troupe, supported by water-lilies; swimming matches from daybreak to dark; pearl-diving every fifteen minutes; swimming exhibitions with show strokes, to soft music by the ‘snide choir’ in invisible costume… The artists sketched, the poets dreamed, philosophers meditated, actors threw aside their masks, smokers smoked and were actors, artists, philosophers and poets in turn…

Early members of the Bohemian Club at their annual midsummer retreat

It was in Jolly Corks rooms that the club began staging the in-house performances that would distinguish it through the coming century. These club dramatizations, or “Jinks” evolved out of the mutual joshing of fellow drinkers, of humorous and sentimental recitations, of play-making and music-making under the influence of liquids (jinks is a Scotch term for drinking game). The Jinks were replete with mythologies and ritual enactments. Some plays performed on the “High Jinks” and “Low Jinks” stages included: The Man in the Forest, a Legend of the Tribe (in which the Bohemians performed “Indian traditions”); The Druid/Buddha/Hamadryad & Gypsy Jinks; The Sons of Baldur; and The Quest of the Gorgon. In each of these jinks, the Bohemians tried to recuperate a pre-modern sensibility and offer a romance that promised to bring the most enchanting and enticing of dreams to life.

“Cremation of Care” by Jules Tavernier

The somewhat hoaky “Cremation of Care” ceremony has kicked off the larger plays and events every year since it was created in 1881 by founder James Bowman. At sundown on the first Saturday of their encampment, a procession of men (some dress in red pointed hoods and red robes, others play a funeral dirge, still others carry torches) accompany a handful of pall-bearers as they carry a rough, open coffin containing a black muslin covered wooden skeleton. They burn this effigy of “Dull Care” at the bottom of a forty-foot stone owl. The ceremony is derived from Druid rites, medieval Christian liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, Shakespearean drama and nineteenth-century American lodge rites. What transpires is an epic battle between Brotherly Love & Christianity and paganism.

Beyond rest and relaxation, the Bohemian spirit epitomized in the redwood forest campgrounds promised members a world not only antithetical to their everyday life, but replete with no less than transcendent possibilities.

Early “Old Guard” members included a number of popular gentlemen very close to Aimée Crocker: writer Charles Stoddard; publisher of the Argonaut, Jerome A. Hart; journalist and playwright Harry Dam; Lamb’s Club president and prolific playwright Clay Greene; painters Joseph Strong, Charles Rollo Peters, Jules Tavernier, Theodore Wores and Julian Rix; one time club director Frank Unger; club presidents George Bromley and Paul Neumann  and composer and club president J.D. Redding, among others. Second husband and one-man variety show Harry Gillig was a renowned member who joined in 1883. Mr. Gillig was called the “Seductive Siren,” by reason of his sweet voice. “Like the lyre of Orpheus, it charms even the animals, for, when he sings, all the dogs in the neighborhood have been known to howl approval,” according to club annals. He often performed at the club.

Harry and his best buddy Frank Unger would give gifts to the club collected while traveling exotic lands with his bride Aimée–a stone from Egypt, a Burmese gong, brass candlesticks made in the shape of a cobra, a highly ornamental brass flask containing water from the sacred river Ganges that was filled with great ceremony in the presence of Viceroys, Punjabs, Rajputs, Minarets and Fakirs. Gillig, an accomplished prestidigitator, would also share new tricks he learned while abroad.

The Metamorphosis

The evolution that followed in the second decade of the club has been compared to the metamorphosis of a long-horned caterpillar into a swallowtail butterfly. A caste line was formed and over time conspicuously wealthy men elbowed out most of the newspaper hacks, revised the entrance rules, and raised the dues. Members began to include very select business magnates, dignitaries, presidents…

The club did provide a setting where mostly local artists, writers, and performers could cultivate lucrative connections. The capitalists, in turn, acquired greater refinement, gained position and status and became the definition of new social elites.

This curious alliance between businessmen and artists in the early years could only have thrived in a city as wide-open and socially pliable as San Francisco in its youth. The Bohemians’ musicals, reviews and art shows grew more elaborate each year, and over time the club developed a latter-day version of Europe’s court patronage system. The starving garret artists got some financial freedom while the railroad tycoon could soften his philistine edges. It was a social arrangement reminiscent of the Medici.

Interior of the posh Bohemian Club in San Francisco circa 1950

There is a world of difference between the common concept of the Bohemian as a poor, starving, gypsy artist who drinks cheap wine, sleeps on sofas and smells like a billy goat and California’s Bohemians. It was at first a perfect marriage of wealthy businessmen who were very much patrons of the arts and consumers of exotic commodities and racy leisure activities, and exquisitely talented painters, musicians and writers who were poor but had very expensive tastes and enjoyed the finer things of life. Together they were an elite band of Bohemians, the haute bohème–bon vivants and dandies–who waved a Gospel of the Moment/Brotherly Love banner, at least while skinny dipping in NorCal rivers.

There was comradery among the members, yet all was not right with the world. “No Girls Allowed” and “No Hoi Polloi” policies were beginning to cause more than a little friction both inside and outside of clubhouse.

In 1891, another cabal, who called themselves the “Roseleafs,” launched a campaign to elect the impoverished but popular Dan O’Connell president of the club. O’Connell headed the “Bohemian” ticket. James D. Phelan headed the “Regular” ticket characterized disparagingly by the artists as “ham and eggs.” Phelan was a multimillionaire who was later mayor of San Francisco and a United States Senator from California. It was rumored that most of O’Connell’s supporters could not vote because they were behind in their dues.

It was the last stand of Bohemia. The Roseleafs, which included Aimée Crocker’s husband Harry Gillig, saw O’Connell as the incarnation of their loose and carefree ideas. They started their campaign with a statement:

The purpose of the Bohemian ticket has its origin in an endeavor to preserve the Bohemian Club from losing those early characteristics to which it owes its reputation, and with the hope that it shall not drift into an organization without any individuality.

The ambition of the candidates upon this Bohemian ticket is to keep this Club distinctively and conservatively Bohemian, and steadfast to those principles which have won it an honorable distinction among the clubs of the United States.

Members came from hundreds of miles away to vote.

In the end the entire Regular ticket was elected. Non artists would soon outnumber the artists. In its second decade Aimée’s business magnate cousins George, Charles H., Henry J. and the brilliant and magnanimous William would join the Bohemian Club as well as her first husband–sleazy lawyer, crooked politician, pugilist backer and inveterate gambler Porter Ashe. Weaving spiders began spinning their webs…