Clarence Thomas Among the Bohemians by Robert Holton

Recent news reports about the relationship between conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and ultra-wealthy conservative activists such as billionaires Harlan Crow and the Koch brothers have revealed many interesting details and raised a number of questions, but one of the most peculiar aspects involves their attendance at the Bohemian Grove. Operated by the Bohemian Club, an exclusive, male-only organization, the Grove hosts an annual gathering for some of the richest and most powerful men in the world on a 2700-acre property near San Francisco. The organization is secretive and security is both tight and sophisticated as might be expected with a guest list in which Supreme Court justices, billionaires and U.S. presidents are customary clientele. 

What can this possibly have to do with bohemia, a cultural space inhabited by starving artists and young lovers, idealistic dreamers, and impoverished non-conformists since the mid-19th century? Or the bohemians one might encounter on the streets or in  cafes and bars of hipster neighbourhoods in many cities still today?

In 19th– century Paris, the term bohemian was misapplied to the Roma population of Paris in the belief they had originated in Bohemia in eastern Europe. The Roma, also misnamed Gypsies, were impoverished and marginalized, scorned, and mistrusted. By the 1840s, the term expanded to include other marginalized and impoverished Parisians, including criminals and the generally disreputable. Karl Marx referred disparagingly to this expanded group of bohemians, the lumpenproletariat, as “‘the scum, offal and refuse” of society’.” Honoré Daumier did a series of drawings of bohemians around the same time that included images of thieves and pickpockets, ragpickers, people looking for cigar butts on the street, beggars, fraud artists, and even a man who catches neighbourhood cats seemingly destined for a stew pot in a cheap restaurant. 

The next expansion of the term bohemian, still in the mid-19th century, led to the inclusion of alienated artists and intellectuals, who proudly embraced the term to signal their attitude of defiance. “‘I despise from the depths of my soul the existing social order and above all the political order that is its excrement’,” wrote one. Paris contains two kinds of outlaws, wrote another, “‘one of thieves, one of murderers; that of the thieves is the stock exchange, that of the murderers in the Palais de Justice’.” It is not obvious how this – the stock exchange as the realm of thieves and the courts as the realm of murderers — – could lead to Clarence Thomas vacationing with the billionaires at the Bohemian Grove, the epitome of the social and political order. 

Henry Murger’s 1849 play La vie de bohème and 1851 collection of stories Scènes de la vie de bohème were the catalyst for an explosion of bohemianism on both sides of the Atlantic. His version of bohemia eliminated the dangerous criminal element, focused on impoverished Parisian artists and intellectuals, and established a template for an alternative – even subcultural –– way of life that has attracted generation after generation of young people ever since. It also afforded an idea of bohemia less threatening and more palatable for a wider audience. The success of Puccini’s La Bohème and the Broadway hit musical Rent, for example, both adaptations of Murger’s work, illustrates the strong appeal of bohemia to audiences beyond bohemia itself.


Bohemian enclaves soon sprang up around Europe and America.  A serialized English translation of Murger’s stories began to appear in New York in 1853, only two years after its publication in France. An American bohemian group, including Walt Whitman, was established on the edge of what was to become one of the world’s most famous bohemian neighbourhoods: New York’s Greenwich Village. San Francisco was one of the early locales, with a bohemian club formally established in 1872 by writers and members of the local arts community. The Club was founded for “‘the promotion of social and intellectual intercourse between journalists and other writers, artists, actors and musicians, professional or amateur’,” as well as those possessing knowledge and appreciation of the arts. This statement is typical of the many bohemian groups that sprang up around the country, as an infatuation with the idea of bohemia took hold in the social imagination. 

While no stable definition of bohemia can be maintained, and many odd manifestations have arisen, the San Francisco bohemian group was soon transformed into something diametrically opposed to anything that might be included in the earlier vision of the artistic community. By the 1880s, the Bohemian Club was already becoming a meeting ground more for local business people than for artists, and following his visit in 1882, Oscar Wilde commented ironically that he had never seen “‘so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in all my life’.” 

This process of organizational gentrification continued unabated with the purchase of a vast property outside the city and a membership list on which Supreme Court justices, billionaires and even U.S. presidents do not seem out of place. Henry Murger and his friends would be astonished (to say the least!) as they shivered and starved in their garrets, to find such people peering at them from across the room as the wind blew in through the broken windows. And should the ragged, anarchic bohemians who carved out the social niche in the first place request entry to the Bohemian Grove, it is not difficult to imagine the response they would receive.

Tags: Theatre and Performance Studies, European Studies