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A Secretive, Real-Life Club of World Leaders Is Fueling the ‘True Detective’ Murder Mystery

The villains on "True Detective" appear to be based on a secret club of world leaders.


Love it or hate it, HBO’s True Detective gets as much buzz and internet chatter as any show on television. And while the second season of the show, currently airing on Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern time, isn’t getting the praise Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey received last year, it’s delving into a conspiracy theory that involves some of the most powerful men in the world in a far-from-flattering portrayal.

Warning: Spoilers abound in this post. So if you haven’t watched and plan to catch up, close the window now. To help, here is a favorite moment from last year’s show to separate the top from the spoilers below.

This season, the show’s writer, Nic Pizzolatto, has detectives Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) investigating the disappearance of a young woman and the murder of a corrupt city manager in a crooked, fictional town just outside of Los Angeles. Their inquiry leads them to a party where a club of “men of affluence” are doing very unseemly things with young, drugged prostitutes.

As it turns out, the group comprising “men of affluence” appears to be based on a real club of the world’s political, cultural, and economic giants. It’s called the Bohemian Club, which meets every year at Bohemian Grove, a ranch in northern California (a theory about this club being the inspiration for Pizzolatto’s villains has been circulating for weeks, but the connection wasn’t explicit until Sunday night).

Whether or not the club, founded in 1872, is an attempt by the Illuminati to steer global events, or just a gathering of powerful people doing rich people things, depends on your appetite for conspiracy. But though its existence has been acknowledged by club members, it’s undeniably secretive, which makes it a bit suspect.

Here’s what we know: The club’s annual gathering takes place at a 2,700 acre campground in Monte Rio, California. According to Vanity Fair writer Alex Shoumatoff — who was arrested while trying to infiltrate the meeting in 2008 — its members have included William F. Buckley, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Calvin Coolidge, Walter Cronkite, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Barry Goldwater, Charlton Heston, Herbert Hoover, Henry Kissinger, Jack London, Steve Miller, Colin Powell, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, and Mark Twain.

According to a November 1989 report in Spy magazine, Kissinger said there are international members as well. “That Indian is here, Bajpai.” (He was referring to K. Shankar Bajpai, former Indian ambassador to the United States.) “Today, they had a Russian,” the former secretary of state added, referring to physicist Roald Sagdeev, then a member of the Soviet Union’s Congress of People’s Deputies. Michel Rocard, the former prime minister of France, had also attended the 1989 annual gathering, according to Kissinger.

Pizzolatto has been sprinkling hints about the Bohemian Club since the start of this season’s True Detective. Pictures of a shady mayor with former President George W. Bush have been featured prominently in a few scenes. And some nasty things have gone down in the small California town of Guerneville, just 12 miles from Bohemian Grove.

In reality, what goes on at Bohemian Grove is up for debate. Its members have defended the meeting as harmless fun. Apparently, a lot of booze is imbibed. According to the Spy report, there’s birdwatching, camping, and general outdoorsy revelry. Former President Richard Nixon had some choice things to say about it. His comments aren’t appropriate for this blog, but let’s just say the retreat wasn’t his cup of tea.

There are also some strange rituals that take place there, giving fuel to subterfuge-minded folks. Noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones managed to sneak into the gathering in 2000 to record a ceremony called the “Cremation of the Care.” You can watch a video of it here. The footage is shaky, but it’s hard to deny something bordering on the occult is taking place. During the ceremony, members don costumes and burn a coffin effigy called “Care” in front of a 40-foot owl.

In 2011, a Bohemian Grove’s spokesperson confirmed to the Washington Post that the footage is real.

One of the Grove’s mottos is, “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” or leave business outside the grove’s confines. There’s one notable exception to this: In 1942, members used the annual meeting to lay the groundwork for the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb.

And apparently former President Bill Clinton isn’t welcome. A heckler pelted him with a question about the club in 2011.

“The Bohemian Club! Did you say Bohemian Club?” Clinton said. “That’s where all those rich Republicans go up and stand naked against redwood trees, right? I’ve never been to the Bohemian Club, but you oughta go. It’d be good for you. You’d get some fresh air.”

Photo credit: HBO Instagram

Correction, July 28, 2015: Vanity Fair writer Alex Shoumatoff was arrested in 2008 for trying to sneak into Bohemian Grove. A previous version of this article said he was arrested in 2009.