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Golden Door Spa's golden anniversary

The San Marcos, Calif., health club opened its doors 50 years ago this year, and it wasn't long before men-only weeks began luring the rich and famous for some serious pampering.

October 18, 2009|Jenn Garbee

SAN MARCOS, CALIF. — Aldous Huxley's eyebrows are so caked with mud in the black-and-white photograph they look as though they might snap off. But the novelist hardly appears concerned with the future state of his eyebrows. More pressing, perhaps, is whether actor Jim Backus, encased in a coffin-like steam box nearby, might melt away more than a few extra martinis.

Officially, Huxley was participating in one of the first "men's weeks" at the Golden Door Spa in San Marcos -- 50 years ago this year -- to give a lecture on the "mind-body as one word." But like the 14 additional spa guests, Huxley was really there to experience the benefits of hula-hoop calisthenics, herbal wraps and alcohol-free "cocktails." It was a Brave New World of masculine mud masks.

"Taking in the men just fell into place, really," says Deborah Szekely, the energetic 87-year-old founder of the Golden Door, about five miles north of Escondido. "We had always been about coeducation at the ranch."

Szekely and her late ex-husband, Edmond, founded the Golden Door in January 1959 as an upscale version of Rancho La Puerta, the couple's coed, self-described "health camp" in Tecate, Mexico. In its earliest years, the ranch operated as more of a commune where visitors brought their own tents, tended the vegetable garden and attended Edmond's group health lectures. Clients looking for a little more pampering -- those with deeper pockets, such as Huxley and Backus -- ponied up for the Golden Door.

Within six months of its debut, the San Marcos spa offered its inaugural men-only weeks to guinea pig recruits. It was the first facility to open its doors to men in the United States.

"In the old days, men had never had a massage or facial before they came here and were queasy about [them], so you had to convince them to try everything, even the food," recalls Szekely, who was raised as a fruitarian (a vegan who eats fruit only).

Her interest in health spas was fueled by the Depression. She met Edmond as a teenager when her mother moved the family to Tahiti because of the limited availability of fresh fruit in Brooklyn in the early 1930s. Edmond was the owner of several health camps on the Polynesian island.

"We initially got the word out through women, telling them they ought to send their husband or boyfriend to try out men's week," she recalls of the first group of crew-cut recruits. "Bob Cummings came because he had a girlfriend who came here."

Actors such as Cummings, Johnny Weissmuller and Huxley's pal Backus could afford the hefty $300 weekly fee, a steep rate at the time. Today, Golden Door spa weeks go for about $7,000.

Business moguls Sam Banowit, a Chicago investor who funded the first hot springs spa in Palm Springs, as well as California business magnate Sam Zagel, were regular guests who joined the actors to shed a few pounds, bond over cigar ash-speckled pedicures and close business deals.

"We used to have the head of a stock company, who came every year to get the 'Pulse of America' -- meet the corn growers, cattle owners, oil barons," recalls Szekely. "Another man bought a football team while he was here."

Other than off-site golf outings and a farewell steak dinner (Szekely broadened her fruitarian diet as an adult), the spa mimicked its women's program in those inaugural testosterone-laden days half a century ago.

Guests rolled out of bed at 5:30 a.m. for a sunrise hike, followed by various calisthenics classes such as a hula-hoop twirling (purportedly to reduce hip flab) and beauty ball exercises that involved participants rolling their faces over a ball (to combat wrinkles).

In between exercise classes, Huxley and his fellow cigar-puffing colleagues attended mind-body lectures and received facials, massages, pedicures and other beauty treatments.

The golf clubs never left their rooms. "We discovered that they wanted to go hiking, spend time together, talk -- do what the women did," recalls Szekely.

Some things, such as the water volleyball tournaments dreamed up by the men as Friday afternoon fun, were a bit different from the ladies' poolside chatter. "They fought like mad over every point," recalls Szekely of the Liars and Cheaters, the two teams those inaugural male spa-goers created 50 years ago.

"Ego was, and still is, very important to the men. . . . They want to climb to the top of the mountain with the best of them -- they don't want to be the guy left behind."

Although the basic structure of the Golden Door's men-only program has not changed much over the years, the calorie counts have increased and calisthenics have given way to cardio and strength-training classes with more modern names such as "washboard abs."

"We have the same clients," says Szekely proudly. "Many of our men have been here more than 50 times, and some have reached the 100 mark."

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