Fortune, August 5, 1985 v112 p38(5)

The male manager's last refuge. (all-male clubs) Walter McQuade.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1985 Time, Inc.

WHILE the women's movement has altered American business life forever, it appears to have mightily reinforced one atavistic tradition: male managers going off into the rugged countryside to commune with one another and with nature. No women is the rule. Cutting themselves off from the outside world, these masculine corporate masters indulge in vast camaraderie and picturesque rituals, often with druidic or old Western overtones, and come back refreshed. Perhaps more important to may of them, they may also come back with powerful new friends in the world of business.

With the season of their annual conclaves under way, the male outdoor clubs are under siege. Prospective members are clamoring to get in as never before, while various interest groups protest what they darkly suspect goes on when the powerful congregate--and women try to crumble the barriers that exclude them.

The antics of the escaped males are colorful. The Conquistadores del Cielo--"conquerors of the sky"--gather at a Wyoming ranch each summer. These are men from the aerospace industry, and their fun and games include quick-draw handgun competitions with harmless electric pistols. The moles are executives in the business of building tunnels and other heavy-construction projects. They periodically come forth out of the earth--or, more usually, down from sky-scraper office suites--and gather at ground level or dinner meetings, games, good fellowship, and glancing business contacts. Travers Island, near New York City, is their summer ground.

In California the Rancheros Visitadores--"visiting ranchers"--meet near Santa Barbara each May and ride on horseback for a week through the countryside, feasting by campfire, playing pranks, sleeping in tents, then rising in the morning to saddle up and forge on. For the saddlesore and hung-over, rubber-tired wagons trail the procession. A similar group based in Colorado, the Round-up Riders of the Rockies, mount their steeds in late July for a week of cross-country riding, with catered grub and liquid refreshment brought in by pickup truck. They climb above the timberline to the Continental Divide, encountering snowbanks and traversing mountain trails so steep that lunch must sometimes be delivered by helicopter. All this is good for the soul but not the back; ka staff masseur travels with the group.

The largest, oldest, and most impressive of these retreats into nature takes place in a tranquil private redwood grove beside the Russian River, 70 miles north of San Francisco, where the men of the Bohemian Club assemble for 16 days each July. Founded in 1872 by such true bohemians as Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce, the club still enlists artists, musicians, and writers, but the main contingent makes up a dream roster of American executive talent and power: John Swearingen, chairman of Continental Illinois Corp.; A. W. Clausen, president of the World Bank; Harry Gray, chairman of United Technologies; Walter Haas, former chairman of Levi Strauss; Lowell Dillingham, chairman of Dillingham Corp.; Frank Borman, chairman and president of Eastern Airlines; Stephen Bechtel of Bechtel Corp.; Edgar Kaiser Jr., chairman of Kaiser Resources Ltd.; David Packard, chairman of Hewlett-Packard; and quite a few others whose names resound with a firm corporate clunk. G. William Domhoff, a sociology professor who one year got hold of the Bohemian Club's membership and guest list, calculated that it included at least one president or other high officer from 20 to the top 25 commercial U.S. banks, 12 of the 25 biggest life insurance companies, and 40 of the 50 biggest industrial corporations on the FORTUNE 500. Politicians are also well represented. Ronald Reagan is a Bohemian, as are Vice President George Bush, Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, and Secretary of the Treasury James Baker Jr.

The retreat groups are unprecedentedly prosperous and popular. The Rancheros recently bought 7,200 acres of the Santa Ynes Valley for their annual shindig. The Bohemian Club, like the others, faces a plenitude of membership applicants. More than 3,000 are in line to pony up a $7,500 initiation fee and join the 1,200 voting members--some of whom waited 18 years to fill vacancies.

Ambition alone could inspire executives of either sex to petition these outfits for membership. The business opportunities to be found riding for a few miles next to a prime prospect or walking through the woods with a Cabinet officer are enough to make an eager manager's mind reel. The clubs disclain any business purpose. "No women, no gambling, no business or arguments" is the general rule for the Roundup Riders of the Rockies, as expressed by a member. Nor do the Bohemians officially sanction deal-cutting during their retreat. Their motto (from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream): "Weaving spiders, come not here."

But against such concentrations of high-powered managers, these proscriptions don't stand much chance. Cap Weinberger once explained to a reporter that the Bohemian Grove "isn't designed for business or even statecraft." He then added, "But it's a very pleasant place and inevitably sometimes talk turns to substantive matters." Beyond an occasional deal begun in the wild, the Bohemians often turn their attention to serious lectures on economics, science, and politics. Seven Presidents of the U.S. have been Bohemians and, by tradition, some candidates aspiring to the office test the waters at the Grove. Barry Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, Robert F. Kennedy, Henry Jackson, and Alexander Haig all went for precampaign examination.

Still, the chief purpose remains fun--juvenile, uninhibited, rude, and extravagant. The Rancheros Visitadores, many in Spanish colonial gear, always begin their cross-country ramble by assembling before the ancient Santa Ynes Mission Church so the padre can bless the horses (and their riders too). Then El Presidente yells, "Ride, Rancheros!" and they thunder into the past. A similar spirit pervades the doings of the Conquistadores del Cielo, as they ceremonially don Spanish colonial costumes with swords, Toledo steel helmets, and breastplates.

The fun finds its highest expression in the Grove. Attendees reside in colonies of primitive huts, treehouses, tents, and tepees, which cling to the steep redwood slopes and bear such names as Cave Man, Rattlers, Woof, Moonshiners, Silverado Squatters, Mandalay, and Poison Oak. As at all the escape clubs, drinking is not only copious but also joyous. At the Grove the wine cellar is actually a warehouse, and stored in it as summer came on were more than 3,000 cases of California and European wines.

On the first weekend of each annual encampment, the Bohemians celebrate the feeling of release that all the retreat groups strive for. They stage the spectacle shown at the beginning of this article--a photograph never before released--in which workaday concerns are burned symbolically in a stentorian ritual called the Cremation of Care. On the final weekend a vast musical is presented in the outdoor theater, set against the backdrop of a steep wooded rise. Written, produced, and acted by Bohemians, the show is different each year but loosely takes the form of a declamatory talbeau, sometimes likened to Elizabethan court masques of the 16th century. All Bohemians must be willing to help out; George Bush has served as a stagehand, as has Unocal Chairman Fred Hartley. The show is accompanied by a 135-member all-Bohemian symphony orchestra (playing music composed by a Bohemian) and is often heightened by special effects. At the end of one show about Scotland's Bonnie Prince Charlie, the prince's death cued a long line of bagpipers imported for the occasion to file slowly down the dim hillside backdrop, pipes shrieking, to carry his body away. The audience of Bohemians rose and cheered.

To balance the dramaturgy of the big production, there is always an evening of ribald farce, also written, composed, and produced by Bohemians, called Low Jinks. This summer's farce: a burlesque of Robert Graves's I, Claudius called I, Gluteus. Bohemian Walter Cronkite, clad in toga, was expected to play a cameo role in the show. At the conclusion, Cronkite was to step forward and say, "And that's the way it was."

SINCE THE OUTDOOR male clubs are devoted chiefly to such nonsense, many members are distressed that some caustic critics are taking it all very seriously. Most prominent among these are feminists, who regard the organizations as the last stand of masculine chauvinism. They may be right. Most of the clubs bar women from membership outright. The Bohemians ban them from the Grove in any capacity during the encampment.

When a waitress applied for a job at the Grove and was turned down, she proceeded to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing and filed a complaint, which the department laid before an administrative judge of the Fair Employment and Housing Commission. Intoned the department's lawyer: "The fact that members [during the encampment] prefer to go unclothed is not a matter of constitutional import. The right of privacy does not allow club members to expose themselves at the expense of equal employment."

The Bohemians fought down that first assault and won their case before the judge, whom the commission then overruled. The Bohemians appealed that action to the Sonoma County Superior Court, protesting that, although they do employ some women at their San Francisco clubhouse, at the Grove women would be inappropriate. They would be an inhibiting presence, argued Del Fuller, the club's secretary and a prominent San Francisco corporate lawyer. Bawdy jokes, pranks, and towel snapping would have to be curtailed, as would casual urinating on the redwood trunks. In the theatrical events the Bohemians' century-old custom of casting men in drag for female roles would be too embarrassing with real women around. Fuller cited as an example his own part in the theatricals of 1972. He had enacted a wood nymph, wearing wings and a body stocking. The commission lost the case but did not give up, appealing the decision to the District Court of Appeals, where the case is pending.

ARDENT FEMINISTS are not the only anti-Bohemians. Five years ago a spectrum of activists united into the Bohemian Grove Action Network and each year since have picketed the gate of the Grove 24 hours a day during the summer encampment. They include a shifting assortment of groups, male and female, that support such causes as independence for Puerto Rico, abortion rights, American Indian concerns, and herbal therapy. Petaluma Students for Social Responsibility have picketed. So have Sisters of Lesbos Against Radiation, Prostitutes for Peace, representatives of the Universal Life Church, and an organization called No Nuke of the North. the message is often antinuclear: one year a picketer's sign read "Hail to thee, O keepers of the divine bomb."

During the early years of the protest certain Bohemians, amused, saw to it that cases of cold beer were sent out to the picket line, but last summer the action got more strident. The protesters tried unsuccessfully to block the entrance to the Grove and prevent Bohemians from leaving.

Such scenes must force members of all the male outdoor clubs to worry about their organizations' futures. The faintest signs of change have begun to appear. The Moles recently altered their bylaws by substituting "individual" for "man" in defining eligibles. All the individuals remain male, however, and it would be shortsighted to predict the demise of the male outdoor clubs, for their appeal is deep-seated and enduring. A Roundup Rider of the Rockies once composed a campfire song that catches the emotional tug of these stubbornly resistant male executive clans: We're all pals together, Riders--birds of a feather, Rootin' pals, tootin' pals, Scootin' pals, shootin' pals, In rain or sunshine . . . Man to man!