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?
Oh, yeah. They wanted their women to be renewed, to glow, to look wonderful, and they knew it was not just physical. Looking 20 when you're 40 is, you know, not just makeup.
We had a very heavy percentage of movie and early TV people. They wanted to work hard. When the spas began--and still today--a lot of them were reluctant to work the guests as hard as I work the Ranch and Door guests. These movie people had to go back glowing. People like Jean Arthur, Gloria Swanson, Esther Williams--it was very important to them to look wonderful. They didn't have trainers; they didn't have gyms. So, they came to tune up. It was like spring cleaning.
Was it mostly women rather than men?
The Golden Door had the first men's week in 1960. We were in our second year [of operation].
Did you find that men wanted the same or different things than the women?
They're different to work with, but they want the same thing. We have one man who's been here 88 weeks of his life. We have lots and lots of men who've been 50 times. They see it as life insurance. Once they're hooked, they come once or twice a year forever and ever.
For the men it's more like a men's club. They serve on each other's boards; they become each other's best friends.
Do they approach the offerings differently? I mean, do they seem to be more active?
They take over. (Laughter) They go in the kitchen and say, "Now, let's cook this today. I liked it last year."
When do you think other people finally caught up to you and said, "Hey, you know, this holistic approach is really what we need to do"?
The head of Charles of the Ritz wanted me to do the Greenhouse. I had two small children, and the Ranch and the Door, which seemed to be enough. But the Greenhouse tried, I don't know to what degree, [to hire my staff]--at one time every major spa had my staff. Any place that opened in the old days would come and steal people from the Golden Door and the Ranch. Today, there's tons of [well-trained spa personnel], but until probably 20 years ago [new spas hired our people]. So when the Greenhouse opened, it had one of my staff for about four, five years. When La Costa opened, they stole seven of my staff. That was a little much. But they offered twice as much salary--so I encouraged people to take it.
To these new places, my staff brought a certain awareness that people want to be worked. I mean we're talking about what are now called destination spas. The more recent health clubs are another thing. The health club is like dipping your toe in the water and not really swimming, but it's good for you to dip the toe in water. (Laughter)
What is a destination spa?
A place where you come just for the fitness week. The health clubs that come with the big resorts are called resort spas. A resort spa is where your husband's gone to play golf, and where you go to work out. At night, you might go out on the town.
You cannot come to a destination spa except on arrival day. You cannot come midweek, because we create a group energy. We don't allow visitors except on the one day of the turnover--Saturday at the Ranch and Sunday at the Door. So guests really develop a very special cocoon-like feeling.
We get lots of women who went to college together and men who have been in business together. When Madeline Albright came, she came with her college roommates. It's a way of bringing in family and friends.
You've been in business for 61 years, and yet it seems that your programs are very current. I mean, you have a labyrinth, which is a very popular walking meditation tool, at both locations.
Oh, yes, we did the first labyrinth of any spa. I read about it in The New York Times. The story mentioned that they were building one at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I went there three months later, and I watched people walk the labyrinth. There were about 15 people during the 2 1/2 hours I was there. I saw things happening to their faces, to their posture.
When Lauren Artress [who brought the labyrinth to Grace Cathedral] was traveling with a canvass labyrinth to San Diego, I took my five key staff from the Golden Door and I said, "We're going to go to this great restaurant and have dinner, but first I want you to do something." So they walked the labyrinth. Two out of the five were moved to tears.
So that's how we did the first labyrinth of any spa. But you see, I can read a story in The New York Times and act. Others have corporations and budgets and all kinds of stuff.
When I took my staff and they were moved, I had a "buy-in." As a leader, you have to have your people buy into your idea. It wasn't just me saying, "This is what we're going to do." They were very moved; they couldn't wait for us to have it.
You know, we don't have to sell anything. We only have to present it. Guests leap and buy it. They come open, looking. They want to have a better life. But the secret is the one week and the group support.
The health club has little opportunity to do anything but provide relaxation. They have their massage or facial; it plays a role. And in its way, since it stops the noise and chatter of the mind, it is a spiritual experience.
So the health clubs serve a purpose. In the old days, when you were tired, you used to have your hair done. It was relaxing. Having a manicure is very restful. You know, you're not sitting there stewing and fretting--at least you shouldn't be. (Laughter)
The health clubs have their role, but they can only help us drop the burden of stress for a few hours. It's self-affirming. You're affirming your inner self when you take care of yourself.
If you had a crystal ball, what do you see in the future for holistic destination spas?
Tremendous growth. It's hard to be an optimist and look at our world, what we're doing to the environment--arsenic in the water. There are so many stupid things like that that we need solace for the soul. Spas give solace. We have the miracle of fax and the miracle of e-mail. Everything is faster. Anyone who can offer time for people to let down their defenses and travel inward... Spas can do nothing but go up unless we simplify our lifestyles, curb our consumerism, and turn half of the malls into parks.
If I was a dictator, that's the first thing I'd do: Close all the malls on Sundays so people would have to spend time with their families.