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For more than 80 years, Deborah Szekely has been a pioneer in the fields of health and wellness. A great believer in the benefits of physical exercise, her work paved the way for the birth of the modern concept of a spa. In 1940, she opened Rancho La Puerta, a spa located in Tecate, Mexico, just three hours by road from Los Angeles. Since, it has become a haven for exercise and relaxation, a favorite escape for celebrities and weary travelers, who come here to unwind and detox.
Known as the Godmother of Wellness, Deborah was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1922. Her maiden name is Deborah Shaian, and she was raised in New York, California and Tahiti. Her parents followed a strict, revolutionary diet of raw food, and her mother was President of the New York Vegetarian Society.
At age 16, Deborah began to work for the Hungarian philosopher Edmon Szekely, then an authority in the natural lifestyle. A year later they got married, and she adopted her husband’s surname. During the war against Hitler, Edmon was summoned to Eastern Europe, but the couple—both Jews—decided to move to Mexico.
In Mexico, they lived surrounded by nature and were frequently visited by their Hungarian friends who had settled in Hollywood, such as the founders of Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox, and by celebrities like William Holden, Barbara Rush, Kim Novak, and Burt Lancaster.
It was the 1950s and physical exercise was a new trend in elite circles. Novak had a wonderful figure but hated her thighs. The actress needed a place to work out with a certain level of privacy and turned to Deborah for help. No one had personal trainers then, and massages were not the norm. Celebrities would come to see Deborah and stay at her Ranch for a month, while film studios covered the expense for the accommodations and treatments.
Deborah realized this could be a very successful business and decided to open The Golden Door, a country estate surrounded by Japanese-inspired gardens that could accommodate up to 18 guests. Instantly it became the perfect getaway for privacy and relaxation, where Hollywood stars prepared for their new roles.
In 1998, Deborah sold The Golden Door, but Rancho La Puerta Spa is still managed by her daughter, Sarah Livia Brightwood. She continues to lecture at both venues, despite living in San Diego.
Guests of the ranch can choose from a variety of cottages: Rancheras, Haciendas, Junior Villas, Villa Studios, and Two Bedroom Villa Suites. After a morning of cardio, spinning and cycling, they can have a delicious lunch of vegetarian burgers and salads prepared on site. Unlike many other centers of body worship, this spa prides itself on the use of healthy, organic food. The 6-acre garden allows guests to pick their own natural ingredients to use later in a cooking class at El Rancho.
There are endless treatment options at the spa, which specializes in close contact with nature, detoxification, skin re-mineralization and improved circulation. These and many other reasons make Rancho La Puerta and The Golden Door favorites with clients, such as Barbara Streisand, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, and others. But it is also a home away from home for personal trainers like Frank Lipman, who coaches Gwyneth Paltrow, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Donna Karan at the New York facility, and has been visiting Rancho La Puerta for years. ■