The Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, California, has long been the subject of conspiracy theories. The fact that some of America’s most powerful figures meet annually at the Grove for a secretive retreat (soon to convene for this year) that involves dressing in robes and participating in a “Cremation of Care” ceremony before a massive stone owl certainly lends itself to speculation about even more bizarre behavior.
But as a recent legal settlement with its employees shows, one need not put on their tinfoil hat to criticize the Bohemian Grove. The annual gathering of the obscenely rich and powerful in the California redwoods is in many ways the ultimate symbol of decadent opulence, unnecessarily secretive bullshit, and pretty much everything else that is wrong with America.
It was reported last week that members of the San Francisco-based Bohemian Club, which runs the Grove, will pay $7 million to settle a class-action lawsuit bought by former employees. More than 600 employees designated as “independent contractors” at the Grove between 2011 and 2014, some of whom allegedly worked 16 to 18 hour days for up to seven days or more in a row, were plaintiffs in the suit.
“The camps at the Bohemian Grove treat their valets very well. They are beloved members of the family. Many of them serve for generations at different camps within the grove,” a Bohemian Club spokesman reportedly said. “Unfortunately, in the world of courtroom law, it takes more money to prove your innocence than it does to settle in cases like this.”
Given the optics of this case and of the Bohemian Grove more broadly, along with the vast wealth of its members, it might just have been worth it to actually prove their innocence – but that’s if doing so would have even been possible.
The plaintiffs and their attorney were limited from speaking to the media by a confidentiality agreement as part of the settlement, but those with firsthand experience working in the aristocratic frat boy atmosphere of the Grove might dispute the Club’s “innocence” and its claim that workers are beloved family members. Earlier this year former Grove employee Sophie Weiner wrote an article for Gawker about her summer job there, which also quoted other former employees. Overall, the experience they describe is far from flattering to the elite members of the Bohemian Club.
“It was some of the worst theater I’ve ever seen,” one former employee who worked with the club’s stage productions reportedly said. A tradition at the Bohemian Grove is to put on plays dressed in drag, as women aren’t allowed at the annual retreat. This same employee also described Henry Kissinger making an appearance in a play, dressed as a hippie. Another told a funny story about failed presidential candidate Jeb Bush throwing a fit because he couldn’t have a milkshake.
Despite the presence of such rich and powerful people at the Grove, it doesn’t seem to have been that impressive to those serving them drinks and cleaning up after them. “What truly separated the Grove from most normal jobs was not its prestige, but the long hours and short overall duration,” Weiner writes. She quotes another employee who describes working what sounds like about a 9 hour shift or perhaps a bit longer.
In response to a comment on Weiner’s article saying that a 9 to 10 hour shift was “pretty normal for a real job” another commentator claiming to be a former Grove employee described working closer to 12 hours a day. But regardless of the average shift length for bussers and valets at the Bohemian Grove, it is undeniable that its guests, which have included several presidents and other influential figures such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Walter Cronkite and many others, are some of the most powerful people in America.
The Bohemian Grove, according to the tamest accounts, is a place where the ultra-rich and powerful go to unwind, pee on trees, put on plays dressed in drag, and get outrageously drunk. “Weaving spiders come not here” is the club’s motto, and the Grove gives these movers and shakers a place to escape the formality and busy schedules of their everyday lives. They certainly seem to enjoy each other’s company.
The fact that such power players have to pay millions to settle a lawsuit with those who serve them, however, shows how little respect they actually have for those below them in the hierarchy they celebrate, whose work allows them the freedom to play. When the rich and powerful banish “dull care” to kick off their annual camp out, it gives them a chance to forget about their disproportionate role in running (and ruining) the world. If these elitists hope to continue their annual festival of drunken escapism and fantasy with as little public scrutiny as they have enjoyed in the past, though, they would be wise to keep in mind the more sobering reality of the lives of their servants.