Deborah Szekely began her long and successful career in 1940 when she and her husband started Rancho La Puerta, originally a health camp in Tecate, Mexico. She went on to found the Golden Door, which became internationally known for its luxurious accommodations, lavish services, and innovative mind-body programs. Beliefnet producer Anne Simpkinson spoke with her about the evolution of holistic destination spas.
Many spas today teach spiritual disciplines such as yoga, t'ai-chi, and meditation. But your facilities, first Rancho La Puerta, then the Golden Door, were pioneers in this area.
Rancho La Puerta was originally called the Essene School of Life. We were strict vegetarians. We meditated. We greeted the morning sun on the mountain, and we thanked the evening star.
A series of stories from the 1949 San Diego Union newspaper described your group as "a cult," a "strange grape juice drinking sect," an "occult school of preventive therapy."
Yes, they called us a cult. I hated the name, but that's what they called us. Our program was based on simplicity and reverence for nature. My husband wrote about angels, Mother Nature, God, and we meditated on these forces each day. We were very metaphysical. We got less so as our guests changed. Originally, 80% of our guests were Europeans who had read my husband's books and expected that kind of retreat. That core is still part of the Ranch and the Door.
Guests who come to the Ranch today feel a spiritual quality in our classes, in the labyrinth, but it's not as obvious; it's more subliminal. It is also, I think, the accumulated aura of the Ranch--what is built from tens of thousands of people coming to restore [themselves].
You said that the metaphysical programs have lessened over time. What was the next phase? Was there more of a fitness orientation?
Fitness was always key. I mean, you went up on the mountain and, in those days, you could swim in our river. I had come out of school very recently--I was 18--so I divided the day into active hours and passive hours; you know, like school periods. Health was present in the beginning but alternated with more spiritual things.
Exactly. That's the term you'd use today: It was very holistic. It was based on body, mind, and spirit. A lot of that indirectly remains, particularly with my staff.
At the Golden Door, we taught yoga since day one. We had a guest who sent his daughter for a few months to the Door; he wanted to make sure she didn't take yoga classes because, in his mind, he equated it with, I don't know what.
His daughter was 17 years old, had a bunch of weight to lose, and she was wonderful. We didn't try to change his mind. We just went ahead and did our sweet thing. That man, if he is still alive today, probably does yoga. But, at that time, yoga was mumbo jumbo weird.
Did the Golden Door have the same reputation that Rancho La Puerta had?
Rancho LaPuerta was seen as a cult. The Golden Door was a fat farm. In New York, there had been milk farms for years in the Catskills, and women would go there to lose a little bit of weight, de-stress, and get beauty treatments.
But the Golden Door had a precise audience [film stars]. You must remember that movie stars were owned by their studios. When a 29-year-old woman had not been in a movie for three years, and she wants to look 19 or 16 or 17, they would send her to us with her voice coach for a month.
Studios paid for stars like Barbara Rush, who came to look great and to get ready to shoot films. They worked very hard during the day, and at night their voice coach worked with them on their scripts. They came because it was part of their preparation. Some people used to come and spend a couple of weeks with us before screen tests. Burt Lancaster practically lived at the Golden Door before he did any film--and he did lots of them.
Were these folks open to your holistic approach--even in the '50s?