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HER WORLD

A Leader in the Field Reminisces About Opening the Door to Holistic Health

October 29, 2000|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Deborah Szekely says she's had a fun life, a modest summation that doesn't begin to do this widely traveled and accomplished woman justice. Considered one of the founders of the holistic health and fitness movement, she and her husband, Edmond Szekely (pronounced "say-kay"), started Rancho La Puerta spa in Tecate, Mexico, in 1940, when most Americans were still eating red meat and smoking cigarettes. About 20 years later she opened the Golden Door in Escondido, which set the standard among luxury spas. (She and her son Alex still manage the Golden Door, which they sold to Wyndham Hotels & Resorts two years ago. Edmond died in 1979.)

But Szekely, now 78, didn't stop there. In 1982 she ran for Congress in San Diego as a Republican. She lost but went to Washington anyway. There President Reagan put her in charge of the Inter-American Foundation, which promotes development in Latin America. Nine years later, Szekely used what she had learned there to start the Eureka Foundation, aimed at creating successful grass-roots social welfare programs in the United States.

I knew the basic facts of Szekely's life but wanted to know more about how she went from one achievement to the next, helping give us a whole new approach to vacationing. When I called her at her San Diego home, she was just getting up from a massage. Here is some of our conversation:

Question: What kind of massage did you have?

Answer: I had a soothing massage. I've been sitting a great deal. I was at a three-day conference and then at temple--I'm Jewish--and had a twinge of sciatica. But I usually have strong massages.

Q: You were born in Brooklyn and got your interest in health from your mother. What was she like?

A: My mother was ahead of her time in many ways. She was a nurse and a do-gooder. She got interested in vegetarianism and then became a fruitarian.

Q: As a child, did you like that kind of diet?

A: We had no choice. We ate raw potatoes and corn, nuts and fruits, especially bananas, because bananas were the only kind of fruit available in the Depression. I remember going to the docks to buy bananas. We would hang them in the basement; my brother and I played jungle games among them.

Q: Your travels started when your mother decided to move the family to Tahiti for the fruit. What was that like?

A: I was 8, and it was like going from black and white into Technicolor.

Q: And you ate only fruit?

A: Well, when we got there, everyone but me broke out in boils. So my father put his foot down. From then on, we ate lots of fish too, like the Tahitians.

Q: And that's where you met your husband?

A: He was a friend of my mom's, a writer and philosopher from Hungary, interested in natural living and things like cosmology, also way ahead of his time. But I was just 12, and he paid no attention to me.

We came back to the U.S. in 1935. My father bought a chain of 'It isn't just about sybaritic pleasure. What's magic about a spa happens when you're there for a whole week.'

DEBORAH SZEKELY,

Founder of Rancho La Puerta

dress shops, and I finished high school in the Bay Area. At Christmastime when I was 17, we went to a health school in Guadalajara [Mexico] headed by Edmond, and I worked as his secretary. He found me indispensable. And I thought he was God. He was very charismatic and brilliant and handsome.

Q: So you married in 1940 and moved to Tecate to start a health camp that became Rancho La Puerta. Why there?

A: My husband was in danger of being sent back to Eastern Europe, where he'd have to fight for Hitler. So we went to Mexico. We got there on June 1 and had our first guest three weeks later. It was tents and outhouses and kerosene lamps, on a piece of lovely land at the foot of Mt. Kuchumaa that we rented for $10 a month.

Q: I get the feeling you love Mexico.

A: I've spent a lot of time there and am very comfortable with the people. They have the best family values.

Q: Your husband urged people to eat organic foods and avoid cholesterol and fats, which sounds sensible now. But back then, didn't people think you were nuts?

A: They considered us a cult. But somebody has to lead. Ideas that seem far out today may well be reality tomorrow.

Q: Who did the work?

A: It was like a commune in that the guests helped. My husband lectured. I taught exercise and healthful cooking.

Q: After 18 years there, why did you start the Golden Door?

A: Because we began to have movie people at the ranch, like the Gabor sisters, Jean Arthur, Kim Novak. Kim Novak said it was very hard to exercise with people looking at her. . . . They would come to the Door with their coaches, work on lines and stay for a month.

Q: Is that when you got into luxury pampering?

A: I started investigating massage and facials when we opened the Door. My husband developed herbal wraps. Hot tubs were created by the Jacuzzi family, who had a son with polio. The Jacuzzis used to come to the Door. So we helped develop hot tubs.

But it isn't just about sybaritic pleasure. What's magic about a spa happens when you're there for a whole week. At the Ranch and the Door . . . people make friends. The depth of conversations would blow you away.

Q: What about exercise? Do you actually like it?

A: No. But I know it's good for me. Everything you do is either life-enhancing or life-diminishing. You don't need a book to tell the difference.

Rancho La Puerta, P.O. Box 463057, Escondido, CA 92046; telephone (800) 443-7565 or (760) 744-4222, fax (760) 744-5007, Internet http://www.rancholapuerta.com.

The Golden Door, P.O. Box 463077, Escondido, CA 92046; tel. (800) 424-0777 or (760) 744-5777, fax (760) 471-2393, Internet http://www.goldendoor.com.

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