Dialogue with Tom Blair
THE DAUGHTER of Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from Eastern Europe, Deborah Szekely was raised in New York, Tahiti and Marin County. At 18, she married Edmund Szekely, a 34-year-old Hungarian scholar who fled Europe during Hitler’s reign of terror and landed, ultimately, in San Diego in 1940. Without legal documents, and forced to leave the United States, Edmund took his young bride across the border to Mexico, where he and Deborah soon established the first of their famous destination spas, Rancho La Puerta, in Tecate. In the ensuing seven decades, Deborah Szekely forged a remarkable life and career that has included founding the modern health and fitness movement, service to the United States as president of the Inter-American Foundation in Washington, D.C. (among other posts) and major contributions as an activist in the areas of health, education and the environment. She lives in Mission Hills and is the mother of two children, Sarah Livia and Alex Szekely (deceased).
TOM BLAIR: Next year, it will be 70 years since you and your husband, Edmund, pioneered the concept of the fitness spa as a service industry. Now, it seems, every major hotel in the world is scrambling to install some sort of mega-spa. What took the rest of the world so long to catch up with you?
DEBORAH SZEKELY: I give a lot of credit to the media. For the past 10 years they’ve been talking about what we were talking about 70 years ago. And we were looked on as crackpots. I just wish the people would catch up with the media. People know what causes obesity and diabetes and high blood pressure and all that stuff. We used to talk about the body as a temple, something sacred to be taken care of. People have to take responsibility.
TB: What’s the philosophy of Rancho La Puerta?
DS: Very simple: to make healthy people healthier. That’s what gets them coming back again and again——that wonderful feeling of being in really good health. It’s exhilarating. They become addicted to it. It’s something they’ve done for themselves. They climbed the mountain. They did the exercise classes. The problem with the new spas is that they’re more and more commercial and less and less fitness. The money is in the treatments. The massages are great, but they’re the dessert. Exercise is the main course.
TB: You were a teenage bride when Rancho La Puerta opened in 1940. What was it like, then, to cross the border into a Third World country to establish a business no one had even heard of?
DS: We started the ranch when I was 18. I had been raised in Tahiti, and I had lived in Mexico. Had I come from Brooklyn, where I was born, and gone straight to Tecate, it would never have worked. But I had already cooked on a wood stove and carried water and had kerosene lamps in Tahiti. And then in Mexico we had our vegetable garden, we had our goats. So I was prepared for the life. It was more new to my husband than it was to me. He was the magnet who brought people into the Ranch; I was the worker bee.
TB: So you and he were undocumented aliens in Mexico, weren’t you?
DS: Oh, yes, definitely. That’s one of the reasons I feel so strongly about immigration issues.
TB: Well, certainly the spa business has evolved over the years. What was the scope of that first Rancho La Puerta?
DS: The program at the Ranch was very similar to today’s. We had a beautiful creek we walked and swam in. We have the same mountain now that we did then, of course. Later, when we were looking at a place for The Golden Door [near Escondido], I kept saying I need to have a mountain. Because walking up the mountain every morning, first thing, sets you on a high and gives you an inner goal that’s exhilarating. You have water exercises——now it’s in a pool; then it was in the Tecate River. We still do our own organic-vegetable garden. The only thing we don’t have now is that we used to milk our own 90 goats; we sold the goat cheese and bread to all our guests. In the beginning you brought your own tents; it was $17.50 a week. Ten years later, it was $25 a week.
TB: It costs a little bit more than that now. So then in 1958, you founded your second health spa——The Golden Door——and it was pretty much an overnight sensation with the rich and famous.
DS: It was.
TB: In those days, some folks called them “fat farms.” As I recall, you hated that label.
DS: Well, you know, whatever they call you, as long as they call you, it’s okay.
TB: The Hollywood contingent was a major feeder for Rancho La Puerta and The Golden Door. Who were some of the big names who helped put the spas on the map?
DS: There were very few Hollywood stars who didn’t go to The Golden Door. We had Gloria Swanson, Kim Novak and Barbra Streisand. Burt Lancaster spent so much time at the Ranch we built bars for him.
TB: Not for drinking, right? He was an acrobat.
DS: Yes, so we custom-built a set of bars for him.
TB: Did you ever have any kind of trouble with the rich and famous? Like maybe you had to evict someone for partying too hard at a fitness spa——or at least confiscate some contraband like alcohol?
DS: We would threaten them, and that would take care of it. Seriously, there were few people who came and broke the rules——because they knew it was important that they give their livers a rest.
TB: Your title at The Golden Door is “founder, creative director.” But as I recall, you sold the Door quite a few years ago. Do you still hold an interest in it?
DS: When my son, Alex, became ill with melanoma and the doctors gave him five years to live, he talked me into selling The Golden Door and having lots of money and being able to do everything I ever wanted to do. So I sold. And within two weeks, Alex said, “Oh, Mom, that was the worst mistake we ever made. Go buy it back.” But they wouldn’t sell, even though I offered them a million dollars——more than the new owners paid me. But so far, through three owners, it’s still my staff and my wonderful people who are there. And I’m there every week. I’m at the Ranch every Tuesday and the Door every Thursday, unless I’m traveling.
TB: Rancho La Puerta sits on 3,000 acres just across the border at Tecate. With all of the violence right now, Mexico tourism is down rather dramatically. Has it affected your business?
DS: Tecate’s only had one incident. I can’t say it hasn’t affected us a little. But the regulars? No problem. For them, it’s a way of life. The repeat business is phenomenal. People come two, three, four times a year. Over the years, some people have spent 50 or 60 weeks of their lives at the spas. One has spent 100 weeks.
TB: You’re a pretty amazing poster girl for the mind-body-fitness programs you established at your spas. Your work pace is incredible, with your writing and all of the international commissions and committees you serve on. If you were a teenage bride in 1940 . . . well, our readers can do the math.
DS: I’m very proud of the fact that I’m going to be 87 next month. But I feel no different. You wake up in the morning and there are things you want to do and it’s fun and exciting. I thoroughly enjoy my life, and I work at it. Most important is having goals.
TB: You’ve authored or co-authored a number of books on fitness and health, including your most recent, Cooking with the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta, written with chef Deborah Schneider. What’s new and different about this one?
DS: They’re always new. We learn so much between books. It’s simpler and more exciting; the recipes have a much more interesting use of spices and herbs. I’m really very proud of it.
TB: You also took a stab, once, at political office. I believe your biography lists you as a Democrat, but I recall you ran for congress as a Republican. Is that right?
DS: Yes. But [George W.] Bush convinced me to reregister as a Democrat. I was too embarrassed about him.
TB: So one shot at public office was enough?
DS: Oh, yeah. By then, I found out what was needed in Washington was a management manual for Congress.
TB: Was that information you felt was lacking when you ran for Congress?
DS: Yes. I’m book-learned; I didn’t go to college, but I read a lot. And I wanted to find out what a congressperson does——and there was nothing to read. I couldn’t believe no one had written about this. So, with the American University, we did it. I needed a political science department and a bunch of students——an organization——to be able to advise others on how to be a congressman. The first edition was put out in 1984, and it is still the book.
TB: Over the years, you’ve served the Organization of American States in Washington; you were founding co-president of the U.S.-Mexico Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange; you’ve been president of the Inter- American Foundation; and you’ve been an adviser to the U.S. Information Agency——among other things. I’ve left out several dozen boards of directors and an equal number of awards you’ve won over the years. What drives Deborah Szekely?
DS: I like to learn. I like challenge. I like risk. My newest campaign is the biggest risk of all——the most important goal to possibly achieve: educating our children so they can educate their parents on health and nutrition.
TB: The project I thought you’d mention is the New Americans Museum that’s now open at Liberty Station. Your parents were immigrants from Poland and Austria. So you’re a first-generation American. What do you hope to accomplish with the museum?
DS: I want people to understand that our immigrants are the best of the best of their communities. To leave a village in Cambodia or Guatemala ——to leave your home, your family and to go out into an unknown world (legally or illegally), without the language——it takes guts. These people come to us with high hopes, wanting and expecting to work hard, and they do. They aspire. I got into this because of school dropout rates. I served 10 years on the National Council de la Raza, and I was appalled at how many Latino kids were dropping out——dooming themselves to second-class citizen status. Because their parents were poor, they thought they didn’t have the smarts——the ability to succeed. They didn’t understand that their mom, who was poor, had to carry water back home. Now she has a washing machine and flush toilets. Mom doesn’t feel poor. And Dad with the gardener’s truck, he’s the king of the universe. I want them to understand they come from the best of the best; they have unlimited capacity.
TB: The New Americans Museum is designed to inspire them.
DS: Yes. By showing and celebrating immigrants. To say, “Look, that immigrant came from that little village in that country, and look what they’ve accomplished here.” Right now, we have a display at the museum on Arabs in Detroit, showing how they have assimilated. We also have 350 years of Jewish history in America. The young people don’t know about this. But understanding, compassion and tolerance all come from knowledge.
TB: So, you’ve already moved on to your next big project: educating American schoolchildren about health and nutrition.
DS: Well, the museum is established and doing its work, and now I’m starting on school lunches. I’ve met with some people in Washington, and I’ll be going back. It’s more than just about the quality of the food they get. I want them, in the fifth grade, to have a semester of learning, through math and science and gardening, about the basics of what it takes for a healthy life: nutrition and exercise.
TB: Just one final, logical question: Do you ever sleep?
DS: Yes, I do sleep. But I don’t do what the books tell you to do. I get five or six hours a night. But you know, doing what’s challenging and what’s right compensates for a lot of lost sleep. I’ve been the luckiest person in the world.