There’s quite the brouhaha brewing at Bohemian Grove, the 150-year-old, ultra-exclusive, all-male campground hard by the Russian River, in Monte Rio, California.
The 2,700-acre woodland retreat, an offshoot of the Bohemian Club on Taylor Street in San Francisco, 90 minutes to the southeast, comprises some 140 smaller camps, most managed by their own crew of “valets”—a catchall term for service staff that includes chefs, cleaners, and general managers. Some camps have 10 members; others have as many as 50. When it’s in full bloom, Bohemian Grove is like a small city in the woods.
In a lawsuit filed in Northern California’s U.S. District Court, three longtime valets from the Monastery Camp, one of the toniest at the Grove, allege that they were worked to the bone during the roughly two weeks in July when the Grove holds its “Summer Encampment,” an annual bacchanal populated by 2,500 or so of the most powerful men in the nation, including, at one time or another, the likes of Henry Kissinger, Charles Schwab, Thomas Watson Jr. (the founder of IBM), media billionaire John Kluge, former Bank of America chairman Samuel Armacost, and Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. (Other annual festivities at the Grove include the “Spring Jinx,” in June, and the “Spring Picnic,” when wives, daughters, and girlfriends can visit the camps as long as they are gone by nine o’clock at night.)
In addition to being overworked, the three valets say they were under-compensated and, for a time, paid “under the table,” so that the Bohemian Club could avoid paying payroll taxes and workers’-compensation insurance.
The long, hard hours continued into this summer, too, well past when the lawsuit was filed. Drew Curlett, the current chef at the Monastery Club, wrote on Facebook on August 4, “After working 20 days straight of 18-hour days in the Bohemian Grove cut off from civilization in the Russian River Valley redwoods, I was broken, like broken broken.”
The chief pastime at Bohemian Grove, especially in July, is drinking, and lots of it. It’s the sort of partying that’s learned in a frat house and evolved by men whose careers depend on sociability: gin fizzes in the morning; Kahlua and coffee; wine at lunch, white and then red; more wine at dinner; and, routinely, Manhattans with cigars. A supposed specialty cocktail at the Grove is the Nembutal—hot chocolate spiked with horse tranquilizer, which can make you lose control of your bowels and your bladder. Getting blackout drunk is not unusual at Bohemian Grove.
“These guys, they don’t want that college experience to go away,” Anthony Gregg, one of the plaintiffs, tells me. “Now they [just] have more money and better alcohol.” Along with the intense drinking, there is a lot of public urination among the redwood trees, and plenty of metaphorical pissing contests, too.
Drugs, however, are verboten. If you are caught with pot, cocaine, or anything else, you are ushered off the premises. And the same goes for cell phones and cameras, which members must leave at home—landline phones are the only immediate connection between Bohemian Grove and the outside world.
Most of the camps have been around for a century or more, and each is distinct. Some are downright luxurious and replete with valets. At the Monastery Camp, dinners are extravagant affairs with linen napkins, four courses, and exquisite wines. “It’s very gluttonous,” says Gregg. “Inevitably someone dies.” (There’s a hospital of sorts on site.)
Other camps are thoroughly rustic: members sleep in tepees untended by valets, and candles are the only source of light. Some prefer the simplicity because it serves as an antidote to their lives outside the confines of the Grove. A few years back, longtime member William Dawson, a plutocrat who was the chief financial officer at a variety of pharmaceutical companies, caused quite a stir when he abandoned the Monastery Camp, of which he was a founder, for a far more modest camp with only one valet. He wanted to get back to his “Bohemian roots,” he told Gregg. The Monastery Camp crowd, angry at him for leaving, had his belongings at the camp tossed away.
Since 1878 the Grove has played host to all manner of rich and powerful men, from politicians—Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush have all attended or been members—and media pundits to Wall Street bankers and lawyers.
A reported specialty cocktail at the Grove is the Nembutal—hot chocolate spiked with horse tranquilizer, which can make you lose control of your bowels and your bladder.
Along with places such as New York City’s Knickerbocker Club, the Grove is one of the last bastions of male exclusivity in the country. It’s also one of the last places where powerful people can hobnob in large numbers in privacy, away from the paparazzi and the media, which are inescapable at other purported “retreats,” such as Allen & Company’s annual Sun Valley conference.
Another quirk of Bohemian Grove is that doing business there is prohibited, at least in theory. Many such clubs have similar rules, but they’re nearly impossible to enforce or to monitor. Valuable business relationships are often made and nurtured at the Grove. Even when professional matters aren’t strictly discussed, business cards are freely exchanged, and agreements to meet up on the outside are made. According to Gregg, the captain of the Monastery Club tells people that his California real-estate business “took off” because of the relationships he made at the Grove. And then there’s the story of how, in 1942, Edward Teller and J. Robert Oppenheimer began planning the Manhattan Project there.
A Scandal in Bohemia
The plaintiffs in the workers’-rights lawsuits and their attorney, Anthony Nunes, are hoping to turn the legal action against the Bohemian Club, the Monastery Camp, and Pomella LLC, which eventually handled the Monastery Camp’s payroll, into a class-action lawsuit on behalf of anyone who worked at the Grove and was paid through Pomella.
The plaintiffs allege that Dawson, who in addition to being a founder of the Monastery Camp was the onetime treasurer of the Bohemian Club, told the valets not to include overtime in their time sheets, so they got paid for only 8 of the 18 hours they worked each day. The valets also say that Pomella and its owner, Mica Talmor, knew the time sheets “radically understated” the hours worked by the valets. Pomella was hired to handle the Monastery Camp’s payroll in 2019 after Dawson asked a camp member, who owns an automobile-racing company, according to the complaint, if he could do it, and he declined. Talmor, an Oakland restaurateur, now manages the payroll for the valets at the Monastery. (“I did not supervise the daily work at the camp,” says Talmor. “Being a female I was not permitted on the premises of the all-men’s camp during the events to supervise the crew.” Dawson could not be reached for comment.)
In 2020 there was no Summer Encampment, thanks to the pandemic. But the next year, the complaint alleges, the Bohemian Club, Pomella, and the Monastery Camp “continually worked together to come up with methods to avoid paying payroll taxes and overtime.” (Talmor says that she “processed payroll based upon the hours reported to me by the valets. I was not in any position to verify the hours worked.”)
On May 29, 2021, Anthony Gregg, who was a senior chef at the Monastery Camp, texted the camp captain—the club member who has the last word—“I just don’t want to lose valets midseason because they are working so much they don’t know what they are getting into.” The reply, allegedly, was that all the pay for one of the valets would be under the table.
The 2021 Summer Encampment was “particularly tough” on the valets, according to the complaint. All three of the plaintiffs claim to have worked “16+ hours per day” for the roughly two weeks, even though their time sheets recorded only 40 hours a week.
There was no improvement the next year. On June 9, 2022, at the “Burgundy Lunch,” which is held on the first Thursday of the Spring Jinx, four valets worked 18 hours each, “providing a two-course lunch and dinner to 90 guests.” For the Burgundy Lunch, the Monastery Camp captain always insists that attendees bring a “superb” bottle of—no surprise—Burgundy. This year, Gregg says he was told the guests drank $175,000 worth of wine at the lunch.
The plaintiffs also allege that the Monastery Camp did not provide them with meal breaks, rest breaks, or overtime pay. “The members of Monastery decided to serve breakfast, lunch, dinner, hors d’oeuvres, midnight snack in camp, which meant we all worked 18 hours a day for eight days in a row,” Gregg told me in an interview. “And so that last year was really the tipping point for me to realize that they’re taking advantage of us.”
None of the law firms representing the three defendants responded to a request for comment about the valets’ lawsuit. They have until September 11 to respond to the complaint in court.
But Sam Singer, the president of his eponymous public-relations firm in San Francisco, did reply on behalf of the defendants. Singer has represented the Bohemian Club for decades, and has made several memorable defenses of the club, such as when he sandblasted the journalist Alex Shoumatoff for a piece he wrote in Vanity Fair, in May 2009, about breaking into the Bohemian Grove to uncover whether the club was clear-cutting old-growth redwood trees.
Singer dismissed the latest lawsuit as little more than a nuisance. “The Club has reviewed the allegations and it is clear the claims appearing in the lawsuit are brought by individuals who were never employed by the Bohemian Club and therefore the Club should not be a party to this action,” he wrote. “The Club believes these three individuals know full well they did not work for the Club and that this lawsuit is a transparent attempt to drag the Club into their individual circumstances.”
Nunes, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, wrote in an e-mail to me that this claim is “farcical nonsense,” adding that “we have checks from the Monastery Camp for their wages and voluminous emails/texts between Plaintiffs and both Club/Camp officials dictating the mean, manner, and methods of their duties and how they will be paid.”
According to a court filing, Gregg, who went to culinary school in San Francisco and once owned a catering business, attested in writing that he was an employee of the Bohemian Club for roughly six weeks every summer for 17 years, between 2006 and 2022.
In the early days, he was by himself in the kitchen. “Cash under the table,” he tells me. “No taxes. No meal rest break. No overtime.” He says it worked until valets from another camp sued the club in 2015. “It became a class action because every single camp at that point was paying their staff under the table,” Gregg says.
After the class-action lawsuit, which settled in 2016 for $7 million, many of the camps at the Grove decided to employ a professional payroll service to pay their employees. But the Monastery Camp did not and elected to continue using temporary employees like Gregg.
Why did Gregg keep working at the Monastery Camp despite being underpaid? Partially, he says, to network with the fancy members. He hoped the contacts he made at Bohemian Grove would help keep his catering business alive. (It dissolved in 2018.) Through the club, Gregg met the likes of Bill Gates, Conan O’Brien, Colin Powell, Clint Eastwood, Cris Collinsworth, Malcolm McDowell, Woody Johnson, and MC Hammer.
“I would have done anything for those guys,” he tells me.
Gregg says many Bohemian Grove members and guests used his catering business. “I looked up to them, the members,” he says. “I just thought good things would happen if I kept my mouth shut.”
Gregg doesn’t know why the Bohemian Club is acting like he and the other valets were not employees. But he thinks once the club sees the discovery, the lawsuit will settle quickly. “I know where the bodies are buried,” he says. (When asked about this, Singer says, “As I noted before, I cannot comment beyond my statement on behalf of the club.”)
“I just thought good things would happen if I kept my mouth shut.”
It will not be easy to pry money from the hands of the club, though. Despite the collected net worth of the members—which easily ticks into the billions—the club has a reputation for parsimony. Gregg tells me stories about two members, one a real-estate developer and the other a retired doctor from Marin County.
Gregg thought of the developer, who was Monastery Camp captain, as a friend. According to him, this member would come by the kitchen, compliment Gregg on his cooking, and even suggest that he had what it took to become a member of the club. But when Gregg complained to him about the working conditions in 2022, he says, the developer told him, “‘We’re in a recession. I don’t care what anyone else says. We just don’t have the money. This is what we’re paying you guys. We can’t pay you any more. Full stop.’ And this is a gentleman who bought himself a $55,000 Patek Philippe watch for his birthday. I know it was that much because he told me, and then he walked into a Porsche dealership and bought a $310,000 Porsche GT3 and wrote a check for it.”
Gregg said that the retired doctor really appreciated his cooking and was eager to keep him from quitting because of the working conditions.
“I know some of the richest members in this camp,” the doctor told him. “How about I go shake some trees and get you some more money? So you’ll come back next year. Will you promise me to come back next year?”
Based on what the doctor told him, Gregg decided to return to the club the following season. In June, at the Spring Jinx, he saw the doctor, who told Gregg he had his extra money. “Do you want it in the form of a check or cash?” he asked.
Gregg thought the doctor had really come through for him and asked for a check. After the six-week season, it came in the mail. “I couldn’t wait to open it,” Gregg says. It was $500.
“And I thought, My God, really?”
According to Gregg, he called the doctor and told him he got the check without much enthusiasm. “Congratulations!” the doctor told him. “Thanks for staying. Thank you for coming back. I’m so glad that worked out.”
Gregg was incredulous. “There was that shit all the time,” he says. “The big money that they were always dangling in front of me. Just never happened.”
But the humiliation and inequities faced by the valets and other workers of Bohemian Grove don’t stop at the edge of the Sonoma County woods. Given the status and power of the men who hang out there each summer, what goes on at Bohemian Grove doesn’t stay at Bohemian Grove. It trickles into society one way or another, eventually.
In July 1967, Nixon gave his Lakeside Speech at the Grove, holding forth on the 12th Street riots, in Detroit, and “the growing disrespect for law, decency and principle in America.” But perhaps more important than anything he said in the speech were the circumstances surrounding it. Nixon alternately described the Grove setting as “possibly the most dramatic and beautiful I have ever seen” and “the most faggy goddamned thing you could ever imagine.” Nevertheless, Nixon himself wrote that the speech gave him more “pleasure and satisfaction” than any other in his life, and that it put him on the path to become the 37th president of the United States about a year later.
This, in essence, is the ongoing legacy of Bohemian Grove: a place where men reveal much about their character, long before the rest of the country finds out.
William D. Cohan is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL and the author of such best-selling books as The Last Tycoons, House of Cards, and The Price of Silence. He is a founding partner of Puck. His latest book, Power Failure, is out now