Deborah Szekely’s “Eureka” Lift

| July 8, 2011 | 0 Comments

Dancing is one of the physical outlets at Rancho La Puerta.

Deborah Szekely has a problem, but not one related to Rancho la Puerta, the rejuvenating Tecate paradise she’s tended for the past 77 years. She’d worked out how we can successfully manage our lives in divisions of 30: ages one – 30 for development and parenthood; 30 – 60, for adulthood and contribution; 60 – 90, for achieving confidence and realizing our dreams.

That’s all very well, but now that she’s in her 90th year and wholly un-fettered by age, she has to revisit – and perhaps re-number – the entire concept!

At the spacious Shangri-la-ish Bankers’ Hill home Deborah’s lived in for 56 years, Robin, her  King Charles spaniel, rushed to greet me, an exuberant escort to the spacious main house.

“We bought this house in 1954 for $12,000 with $500 down!,” Deborah says.
“Remember those days, though, when every house had tiny little windows?  The first thing we did was glass in one entire side. The former owner came to visit and said, “Oh, I never realized this house had a view!”

Indeed.  Luscious gardens, graceful walks, charming bungalows, panoramic sky and sheltering trees create Deborah’s haven, from which she oversees Rancho la Puerta, and her numerous involvements and commitments.

With telephone at her side, she takes – and out of respect for her visitor – politely but swiftly dispatches all calls – save one, clearly a Ranch issue which she handles  in  clear, confident Spanish.

Her recent 89th birthday yielded “seven parties,” she said.  Her favorite was a celebratory trek she led at the Ranch, with staff and their children – about 300 in all.  Many staffers are third generation Ranch employees. “Pedro Martinez, a masseur is one example,” she proudly says. “ He’s worked at the Ranch for 47 years.  Today, five of his sons work with us as well.”

As is well-documented by now, Edmund and Deborah Szekely were “health nut” pioneers when they launched what was then considered a rather “cult” type getaway in Tecate, in 1934.  Deborah’s parents had been friends with Szekely, a Hungarian scholar, philosopher and natural living proponent. They were Jewish immigrants, committed believers in “natural” living.  “We met Edmund in Tahiti, when we moved there from Brooklyn,” says Deborah. “My parents embraced an all-fruit diet – at the time, little of that in Brooklyn, but plenty in Tahiti!”

Edmund was called “The Professor,” noted as an author and a lecturer. “When his secretary at the time left and was replaced by another,” says Deborah, “the new man took one look at the rugged environment we were in – and got right back on the same train to return home!”

Deborah, at 17, became Szekely’s assistant. “He was surely a visionary – yet so impractical,” she recalls. “He couldn’t drive; couldn’t type; couldn’t balance a check book.”

Deborah could, and suddenly she had money and independence.  “He was the dreamer, the teacher, the writer; the magnet that brought people to our ‘camp.’ I was the practical one.  We married when I turned 18; had we not, we’d never have had the Ranch!”

In the wake of World War 11, Szekely had fled Europe, rather than join the Hungarian military. Without a passport nor documents for living in the United States, he fled with his young wife to Mexico, where, on a shoe-string and a piece of land beneath Mt. Kuchima, they established Rancho la Puerta. Deborah laughs, “Our earliest guests paid $17.50 per week – and brought their own tents!”

“After the war,” Deborah continued, “we stayed at the Ranch – it turned out that we had no choice!  We’d intended to go to England, but that just didn’t happen.”

The Europeans, she explained, were themselves recovering from the war, just happy to have survived and trying to rebuild their lives. “Our ideals and plans for a healthful and natural get-away were quite superfluous to those needs.” she says.

“So, we stayed.  It took ten years to bring the Ranch to a reasonable sort of business, and provide us an income. But we were confident that the service we rendered was valuable – and to this day, that’s been proven!” (Deborah’s phone rang, but this time, a peculiar conversation took place. Robin, the adventurous spaniel, had been “found,” and was now being held by the caller in Banker’s Hill. Does his owner wish to claim her?  Is Deborah Szekely, at going-on-90 “spry”?  Let’s just say that this visitor raced behind her to the car, barreled through the ‘hood, and ultimately collected Robin – the – escapee. “She did it again!,” sighed Deborah.)

Her energy and drive having been amply demonstrated, we continued our talk, while Robin snored, guilt-free, at our feet.

“I’ve come to believe that the Ranch, has a special quality, one that’s rare, “Deborah continued.  “Maybe it’s Mt. Kuchima overseeing us; or the auras of the thousands of guests that have been here.  I hope I don’t overstate it … but I regard the Ranch as a sacred retreat.  I was meant to be there.”

“Many guests come annually or sem-annually – often to celebrate a birthday or anniversary. They’re busy and engaged every day – with exercise classes, gardening, hiking; they’re never on auto-pilot! How to keep guests busy was a challenge at first … we were in such a remote location … and there was no ‘model’ for what we were doing.”

“Elizabeth Arden had a spa, primarily for drinkers, drying out.  We had nobody to imitate!  Eventually, everyone’s imitated us!”

Within sixteen years of developing Rancho la Puerta, Deborah knew how to provide extraordinary and rewarding experiences for guests. Having paid her dues, she bought the The Golden Door.  “My husband said, ‘if we have kids, we need a business in the States.’  He didn’t want kids, and he didn’t want the Golden Door, but I did.  The Door was entirely my project.”

The couple did have kids: Alex and SaraLivia, both of whom became important developers and managers of both properties. Tragically, Alex died of cancer at 44, and his sad diagnosis led to the family selling the Door.

“We only sold when Alex was given five years to live,” Deborah says.  “He said, ‘a sale can pay for having a fabulous life, doing everything we want, for five years!’”

Yet through a succession of weak owners, the Door faltered, and Alex told Deborah, sadly, “Mom, buy it back!”

While that didn’t happen, the Golden Door today is successfully run by Luxury Resorts & Hotels. Many of Deborah’s original staff are there, and a weekly trip for lecturing and consulting is on Deborah’s  routine.

Traveling from her home in Mill Valley, SaraLivia now spends ten days a month at the Ranch, lending her own expertise and creativity to the Ranch’s new cooking school, the property’s architecture and gardens, ensuring that every guest has a unique, refreshing, renewing experience.

What can we learn from Deborah’s amazing journey?  “I’m a risk-taker – – I’ve been completely lucky! I don’t stew, and I don’t fret.  Even bad experiences have given me…well, experience!

“In my lectures, I tell those over 70 not to suffer from “oxygen deprivation” – – don’t decline. Do more!  I ‘do’ something every day, walking, Pilates. Everything may ‘work’ less efficiently – but everything still ‘works’!”

Deborah hasn’t quite worked out re-packaging her earlier philosophy of life’s “thirds,” but she has excellent expectations for whatever comes with soon becoming  90.

“We might tweak the ‘formula’ of the Ranch – with our cooking school, say, or introduce new menu items or classes, but we won’t veer off on any sharp tangents. We’ve kept to the straight and narrow, deepening & strengthening our formula – – it’s been key to our success!”

In anticipation of a 90th celebration, Deborah will arrange 100 percent of the profits of her “Fundacion La Puerta” that supports environmental, social and educational projects in the Tecate and border  areas. There will also be a debut for “Watch Yourself Grow Younger,” her highly anticipated new book.

And, the satisfaction – even thrills – of realizing how many thousands have been improved by that formula, the philosophy and practices of her Rancho la Puerta continue unabated.  “One attractive woman, in her mid-40’s, came for a week,” she reports.  “She left, and to our surprise, returned three weeks later. ‘It was the ‘best week of my life!,’ she said. ‘I looked in the mirror when I got home, and I’d never looked that good!’”

This resonates with Deborah Szekely, her own best example of the benefits of the healing and uplifting spirit of Rancho la Puerta.  “Eureka!,” says Deborah. “It’s one of my favorite words. It means, ‘I found it!’”

A lovely video about Rancho la Puerta, narrated by Deborah Szekely, can be found at  Click on “History.”

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