When Deborah Szekely was 18 years old, she and her husband moved from California to Mexico. The year was 1940 and Dr. Edmund Szekely, a Hungarian citizen and scholarly professor, had been called to Europe to fight with Hitler. Instead, the newlyweds crossed the border and opened a wellness camp called the Essene School of Life. The climate was perfect, the soil fertile and their backyard a hike-able mountain range. They soon renamed it Rancho la Puerta. Friends, associates, and acolytes would drive from Los Angeles to Tecate to spend a week sleeping in tents, helping out in the gardens and listening to Szekely discuss the dangers of nicotine, responsible sun exposure, and the merits of vegetarianism.
Deborah Szekely was born into wellness. Her mother, a nurse, was vice-president of the New York Vegetarian Society and fed her family on a diet of raw foods. It was actually a banana shortage that prompted the family to move from Brooklyn to Tahiti when young Deborah was 8. There, they met Szekeley, a dashing professor who lectured on the importance of clean living. At 16, Deborah became his secretary. At 17, she became his wife.
While Szekely preached at Rancho, Deborah ran the operation. As the fitness craze grew, so did the bold-faced guest list. Everyone from Burt Lancaster to Alduous Huxley headed to Rancho to recharge through yoga, meditation and farm-to-table meals. In 1958, the Szekelys opened a second location, the Golden Door. A fancier, women-only version to Rancho’s Summer Camp vibe, the Door provided a more private setting for regulars like Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Oprah Winfrey, and Barbra Streisand.
Szekely sold the Golden Door in 1998 and in 2011 handed the reins over to her daughter. She still visits both spas regularly, where she lectures to standing-room-only crowds on everything from the ranch’s history to her opinions on the latest health craze to the importance of voter registration.
Szekely spoke with the Cut about meditating, the mantra that guides her decision-making, and why she thinks umbrellas should come with raincoats attached.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up?
Take a pause. The computer and phone will wait. The first 20 minutes after I wake are a time to communicate with myself.
Do you meditate?
Yes, but I meditate “in action.” I am very present, filled with a peace of mind. I do not sit and think “Dear God I want to be serene.” When I really try to do that, I always fall asleep.
What is a typical daily meal plan? Always the same: blueberries, whole milk yogurt, granola, and lots of cinnamon. My main meal is lunch, usually at about 1 or 2 p.m. I like sushi. Dinner can be as simple as a scrambled egg. When I’m tired or don’t know what I want to eat I always seem to say, “Ah, I’ll have sushi.”
Would you share your mantra?
“Siempre Mejor,” which was my husband’s. Translation: “Always Better.” I also use “Life enhancing? Life diminishing?” Both questions I ask myself when confronted with a decision.
Why do you think so many people are unhappy these days?
There’s an old saying, “Happiness is difficult to find within, impossible to find elsewhere.” You can’t expect others to make you happy. You must find things that please you about yourself that don’t depend on others. You must like yourself.
What should we do in our daily lives to be happier? Would it involve exercise? Meditation?
All of the above. But basically, set achievable goals for the day. Plan your day to be successful. The unrealistic expectations that some people have guarantee their frustrations. My good health is important to being happier in daily life, so diet is also important. Incidentally, I’m a pescatarian. I do eat fish, but not meat.
What do you splurge on?
I don’t do this anymore now that I’m 96, but years ago it used to be buying a really, really great dress or outfit once a year.
What claim to fame are you most proud of?
Starting the Congressional Management Manual — a 300-page manual on setting up and running a congressional office.
What’s your favorite scented candle?
Fresh air is my favorite scented candle.
What is the ultimate definition of decadence to you?
A super-elegant meal in a super-elegant place with a great view and impeccable service.
Favorite outdoor activity:
It’s always — to me — cheating to say this is an “activity,” but lying, napping and reading in the sun are wonderful. I know you’re not supposed to.
What phrase or word are you known for saying?
What word or phrase drives you crazy when others say it?
Anything derogatory about another person. I hate gossip.
What do you do or take when you can’t sleep?
Read a book.
I get up and work.
I don’t get any. And I don’t get near people who have one. That has a lot to do with it.
What is always in your fridge?
What do you wish you had invented?
I don’t see any reason in the world why an umbrella doesn’t have a raincoat hidden somehow in it.
What’s your favorite spot in the entire world?
Being at Rancho La Puerta, wandering around. I really mean it. Especially when I’m looking up at my son Alex’s oak on the mountain.
What product or treatment at the spa is misunderstood and should be more popular?
A monthly skin scrub. Everyone should have one, at least seasonally. I like the feeling of getting off all that dead skin. You’re super-smooth afterward.
Who in your opinion is currently crushing it?
What are you working on mastering?
Seriously? I’m 96!