Deborah Szekely
Fellow of the Wellness Hall of Fame

Deborah Szekely


Deborah Szekely (neé Shainman) was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1922, the daughter of an Austrian mother – a nurse – and Polish father, a garment factory owner.

Deborah's mother was vice president of the New York Vegetarian Society, and during the Depression of the 1920s there was a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in the city, so the family bought steamer tickets and sailed to Tahiti –via the Panama Canal and after staying with relatives in San Diego for a while – in 1930. They would remain there until 1935, with Deborah attending convent school.

In Tahiti they lived in a home on the beach made from palm leaves and Deborah learned how to cook on a wood-burning stove, as well as to fish, carry drinking water and live with an outhouse and no bathroom – skills that would stand her in good stead in her future years.

The Szekely's raised vegetables in abandoned dug-out canoes so the crabs wouldn't eat the crops.

In Tahiti, the Shainmans met Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, a Hungarian academic who had comandeered their favourite swimming hole for a health camp.

Szekely was the author of Cosmos, Man and Society, a book on how to live a life of optimal health and was known for his health camps. The family attended one in California after they'd moved back to the US in 1935 when Deborah was 13.

The families kept in touch, with Deborah becoming Edmond's assistant at 16 – when his secretary returned to England – and then his wife at 17 in 1939.

Edmond Szekeley's previous health camp locations had included Jamaica, Tamaulipas in Mexic, and Elsinore in California, however, just as he was about to hold another camp in Elsinore, his Romanian visa expired and the Romanian army ordered him to report for duty in the early days of World War II to fight for Hitler. The US government threatened to deport him.

As a result, Deborah and Edmond crossed the border into Mexico without papers, found a remote valley with an adobe hut to rent, and told all his health camp followers there had been a change of plan and that summer's camp would be held at Tecate, Baja California.

The year was 1940 and the health camp became the foundation of Rancho La Puerta.

Edmond, closely followed by Deborah, arrived in Tecate with only a week to set everything up for the first camp, but they were successful and when guests arrived – because there were no facilities whatsoever – they offered two pricing options: US$17.50 a week for guests who would help with chores for two-and-a-half hours a day and a US$30 option with no chores. All guests were asked to bring their own tents.

With her background growing up in Tahiti, Deborah was well prepared for the work involved and the Szekelys settled in the valley at Tecate.

They had planned to go to England after the war, but it dragged on for five years and by then this idea was abandoned as the business in Mexico blossomed.

The Szekelys had two children, Alexander, who took over the running of the business when he graduated from Cornell and Sarah Livia, who trained in England to be a landscape architect and has been responsible for the award winning grounds of Rancho la Puerta.

Some Rancho La Puerta guests were seeking a more personal experience to complement their visits to the Ranch, leading Deborah to found the Golden Door in 1958, making it her special project.

The Szekelys were extremely active in the burgeoning spa and wellness industry in the US, influencing the establishment of ISPA and also The Green Spa Network.

Deborah handed the reins of Rancho La Puerta to Alex on her 60th birthday and left for Washington DC to pursue a second career in politics, but continued to keep close connections with both properties.

The Golden Door was sold by the Szekelys in 1999 after Alex was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2002 and Sarah-Livia Szekely Brightwood, Deborah and Edmond's daughter, is now president of Rancho La Puerta.

Deborah has remained active in the business, lecturing regularly at Rancho La Puerta to packed houses and continuing to actively support a wide range of local charities.

Read the full history of Rancho La Puerta here

Congratulate Deborah Szekely on her induction into the Wellness Hall of Fame

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