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Health Spa Pioneer Recalls Her Early Years

Rancho La Puerta owner Deborah Szekely, 97, at her San Diego home says she still lectures at her health spa, June 12, 2019.
Amita Sharma
Rancho La Puerta owner Deborah Szekely, 97, at her San Diego home says she still lectures at her health spa, June 12, 2019.
Nearly 80 years ago, as World War II raged, immigration rules and a keen interest in health motivated Deborah and Edmond Szekely to get into the wellness business.

Deborah Szekely was still a teen in 1940 when she and her new husband opened a health retreat in Tecate, Mexico. Later she founded the famous Golden Door spa in Los Angeles. The 97-year-old recently spoke to KPBS about her colorful life.

Q: How did your interest in health and well-being begin?

A: We have to go way back to Brooklyn, New York. My mother was vice president of the New York Vegetarian Society when I was four years old. Talk about health nuts. And because of the (Great) Depression, the only thing available was bananas and a full-time diet of bananas was somewhat monotonous. And my father lost some money in the stock market like everybody else. And he was very, very depressed.


And we were not rich Jews but moderately well-off Jews. I had a nanny. My brother had a nanny. Anyhow, dad had lost all his money. But when you lose everything it's not quite all. And one day, mom came home and said "we are leaving for Tahiti in 16 days." And my father said, "Where's that?" And, she said, "I don't really know but here are the tickets."

Q: How long were you in Tahiti?

A: We stayed in Tahiti for five years. There were all these fruits and veggies. And we went to French schools so my brother and I are fluent in French. And we had a wonderful kind of fairy-tale existence. I met the man who was to be my husband. He was teaching in Tahiti. And mom was always looking for somebody who was like a guru. So when we left, she said, "We're leaving now. If you come by San Francisco, stop in and see us." And he did. And then he said, "I'm going to Elsinore, California, to do a health camp with a group of people from England and if you’re around in the summer, please stop by." And that summer Mom said, "Well, we don't have anything scheduled, why don’t we go to Elsinore?"

Q: What happened next?

Edmond Szekely went to Guadalajara and mom and he corresponded and he said, "Come by and visit. We’ve started a health camp in Mexico." We arrived in Guadalajara and my husband’s secretary was packing to go to England. So mum said we can’t leave him with no one here. And I had just graduated from high school at 16. And she said, "Let’s stay and help until he finds a secretary."


He couldn’t find one. At 16, I had a little apartment, a small salary and I was an independent. And at the end of the year, on the train going home, I had become the indispensable secretary and I got married at 17. I didn’t go to college and all that other stuff. And we started Rancho La Puerta.

Q. Why did you choose that area in Tecate to open Rancho La Puerta?

Deborah and Edmond Szekely eye their Rancho La Puerta spa in Tecate, Mexico, which is a short drive from San Diego.
Courtesy of Rancho La Puerta
Deborah and Edmond Szekely eye their Rancho La Puerta spa in Tecate, Mexico, which is a short drive from San Diego.

A: War makes you do strange things. My husband (Szekely) was an enemy alien. He was Hungarian. And there was the war (World War II). And we had been told by the U.S. government that if he was found in the United States, June 1st, 1940, he would be returned to his country of origin. And so it wasn’t very attractive for a Jew to be returned to a country of origin and so we went to Mexico. My husband had no papers for nine years. The Romanian-Hungarian government refused to renew his papers because they wanted him to come and fight on the side of Hitler. Anyhow, so we were stuck in Tecate.

Q: How did Rancho La Puerta get started?

A: So when we got there there was nothing. And, I mean nothing. We’re talking about no electricity, no running water. We had outhouses. We leased a small piece of land. I thought we were paying $50 a month. But I found papers. We were paying $50 a year.

Q: What was daily life like at Rancho La Puerta?

A: In the morning everyone climbed the mountain. It's a natural existence. In England, my husband was the head of the British International Health and Education Society and lectured on “the natural and cosmic laws and return to original life.” It was campy. And so we set up a summer camp and the first few years it was just a summer camp. But each time a few people wanted to stay and there were some little houses that had been abandoned by people who had moved to L.A. And so we rented them and people stayed.

Q: What do guests do there today?

A: You climb the mountain. You exercise. You have a wonderful diet. We have great chefs. Every night, we have a different speaker. And we bring in great musicians and mainly from the Cleveland Symphony. We have Nobel Prize winners talk about their subjects.

Q: Who goes there?

A: In the old days, we used to get congressmen and governors. Now they have trainers and things. So we don't get quite that. And we don't get as many. We still get some movie stars...the two main ones were Kim Novak stayed a lot and Burt Lancaster. But then we had all those young starlets.

Q: Tell me about Golden Door. How did that get started?

A: Well, because our movie star ladies said "I wish you had a place just for us." They just wanted to relax. We started with eight guests — a place just for them and also close to Hollywood so they could be called and they could get there. And a number of them came together with their coaches and they would be learning their lines and exercising and eating properly and not drinking or anything. And it caught on. They liked the privacy, the intimacy. They still do.

Q: The Cupa Indians thought there was something healing about this region. Tell me what you think about that.

A: Of course it is. It’s never been industrialized. It’s never been polluted. And San Diego still is a clean city. What we have now is people population.

Q: I read a quote by you that said, you’ve come to believe that the ranch has a special quality. Describe that.

A: I think it’s the happy guests. Everyone leaves something. It’s hard to explain. But on the morning hike, I’ve had so many guests tell me, My father spoke to me. They’re sort of open to getting suggestions. And they have interesting experiences.

Q: People describe feeling reinvigorated when they come to San Diego. Is there something unique about this area?

A: Well everybody tells me when they drive into the ranch, they feel at peace.

Q: What is that?

A: I wish I knew. It just is. The Indians who settled here had quite a high degree of culture and had the sense to pick it. It’s always been a place which people select.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice that you give your guests?

A: I always tell my guests that when you first get out of bed, don't turn on the radio or TV or pick up the newspaper or this or that. For the first 15, 20 minutes just have silence. Just you and yourself. People have ideas sometimes when they sleep. Don't look for the ideas. They should just be themselves with themselves. It's a kind of special piece in some ways, a love affair with oneself. And so we tell our guests and I make a big deal of it that for the first 15, 20 minutes, get out of bed. Yes, go to the bathroom. You can brush your teeth. But no noise. No outside.

Health Spa Pioneer Recalls Her Early Years
Listen to this story by Amita Sharma.