The Suicide Club was a secret society in San Francisco. The club was founded by Gary Warne and three friends: Adrienne Burk, David Warren, and Nancy Prussia.
The idea of the Suicide Club was born on January 2, 1977, during a winter rain storm in San Francisco when the four founders met at Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge at the top of a wall facing the Pacific Ocean. Waves from the storm were crashing on the rocks below the wall, going up the wall and then crashing on to the top of the wall, soaking the chain. The four founders took turns running up and holding on to the chain while the waves crashed down on them. If a person let go of the chain they would likely be swept out to sea. After surviving the ordeal, the founders started the Suicide Club.
Warne, who had been interested in ideas around letting go of fear, and exploring group creativity, without surrendering personal identity, saw the Suicide Club as an avenue for personal growth, as well as an avenue for communal fun.
The club was first announced in early 1977 as a course at the Communiversity in San Francisco, part of the Free School Movement. For its first year Communiversity was park of San Francisco State University, with Gary serving as the student administrator, but Gary, along with other student administrators parted ways with SFSU and ran Communiversity as an independent group, headquartered out of Gary’s run down used paperback book store on Judah St, Circus of the Soul. To fund the cost of printing its calendar of events, the Communiversity held three garage sales each year, with all goods donated to it, and with no item having a price tag; people were asked to pay whatever they deemed fit. Some would pay less than the items value, but many would pay above the intrinsic value to support the organization.
The name of the Suicide Club was inspired by three stories written by Robert Louis Stevenson, where men who want to die belong to a club, where each evening one of them is randomly selected for death. The name belied the gentle albeit zany nature of its members, who had a predilection towards lighthearted practical jokes.
Charter Member Meeting of the SF Suicide Club
Meeting regularly but at odd times. Members must agree to set their worldly affairs in order, to enter into the REAL world of chaos, cacaphony and dark saturnalia, and they must further agree to live each day as though it were their last, for it may BE. The club will explore untravelled, exotic, dasmal and exhilarating experiences of life: deserted cemeteries, storms, caving, haunted houses, Nazi bars, fanatical movements, hot air ballooning, stunts, expose, impersonation. The Club will be ongoing for the rest of our lives.
Nancy Prussia, Gary Warne, Adrienne Burk, David Warren, R.J. Mololepozy, The Phantom, The Crimson Pirate, Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys.
John Law, part of the Suicide Club’s freshman initiation ceremony, remembers first reading the description of the club in the Communiversary newsletter, and immediately feeling moved to join. Upon first walking into Circus of the Soul he felt disappointment, as he met two of the founders: Gary Warne and David T. Warren. Law recalled Gary looking like an out-of-shape hippie and Warren looking ancient and holding a cane. Warren was in his early thirties. Law was 17.
Membership in the San Francisco Suicide Club was attained by attending an "initiation" ceremony that took place sporadically. The first initiation ceremony began with a meeting of fifty or so recruits at Gary’s book store. There they were blindfolded and lead to vehicles, which drove them to an undisclosed location on the coast. Still blindfolded, they were instructed to hold hands and lead down a dirt path, over obstacles and finally up a sand dune, where they entered an underground bunker. Finally, deep inside the bunker they were instructed to remove their blindfolds and allowed to light a match from a pack that had been provided to them. Each pack only had one match so soon they were in the dark again, but were able to quickly navigate back to an entrance way. There, David Warren, one of the few fire eaters in San Francisco at the time, held an initiation ceremony, involving fire, with each participant touching fire produced from two alcohol bottles, the “Bottle of Life” and the “Bottle of Death”.
Any member could propose any type of event, and it would be listed along with a write-up in the Club's monthly mailer, sardonically named the "Nooseletter." There were five or so general categories that most events fell into:
Exploration. Exploring abandoned industrial buildings, ships, tunnels and bridges
Street theater/pranks such as riding the San Francisco cable cars naked and making post cards commemorating the event.
Infiltrations (the Unification Church and the American Nazi Party were the two most daring and involved)
Sometimes, types of events were conjoined, such as the "infiltration" of the National Speleological Society undertaken in 1979. Club members converged on the NSS monthly confab at the Palo Alto Grotto, wanting to join. NSS members soon determined something was a bit odd about the new recruits. The two groups ended up working together on several extreme expedition caving trips, the most prominent being a two-week trip to Sótano de las Golondrinas in Central Mexico, the deepest free pit cave in the world.
The Suicide Club was probably best known at the time for its bridge climbing exploits. The Club, though secretive during its lifespan, influenced many future cultural and artistic endeavors. The Billboard Liberation Front began as a Suicide Club event hosted by Gary Warne in 1977. Some of the events were illegal, and the club had a code phrase they used in newsletters “ID Required”, which denoted an illegal event.
Author Don Herron's Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, the longest lived literary tour in America began in the Suicide Club in 1977. The Chinese New Years Treasure Hunt was created by Gary Warne and Rick Lasky in 1977 and continues (albeit in a different form) to this day. The Cacophony Society was founded by ex Suicide Clubbers in 1986. Members of the Cacophony Society organized San Francisco's first SantaCon, adopted later and spread throughout the world by the Cacophony Society. There are now Cacophony Societies throughout the world. The "leave no trace" mantra of Burning Man was borrowed from the Suicide Club and the philosophy of Warne. The urban exploration exploits of the club have inspired others, such as Julia Solis to explore on their own and document their discoveries.
Gary Warne died on Thanksgiving Day, 1983 of a phlebitis induced heart attack. His ashes were, in part, scattered from high above the Golden Gate Bridge, as was his wish. John Law also took some and painted them into the bridge itself, forever making Gary a part of the structure he loved to climb. Finally, some ashes were reserved, and given out in small vials to a select group of friends.