It’s lunchtime in the bustling dining hall of the Rancho La Puerta spa in Tecate, Mexico, nestled in the mountains at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, a three-hour drive south of Los Angeles. After a morning of grueling hikes, cardio boxing, and spin classes, guests are digging into their veggie burgers and green salads when a tiny white-haired woman walks into the room, instigating some serious rubbernecking. Yes, that’s her, that’s her. She’s the one who started this place—this last part is key—in 1940.
Though the name Deborah Szekely (pronounced ZAY-kay) may not mean a lot to most people, she is the fundamental reason why spas as we now know them exist. Those familiar with her work—along with the world-famous Rancho, she established a nearby sister property, the Golden Door, 18 years later—have dubbed her the godmother of the wellness revolution.
Both Rancho and the Golden Door attract a fiercely loyal crowd of regulars including Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart, Barbra Streisand, and Arianna Huffington, who gladly fork over more than $3,000 to spend a week as teetotaling summer campers whose schedules are filled with, say, waking before dawn to scale a mountain or sweating it out on a yoga mat or tennis court, then indulging in a Hot Riverstone massage or a Peach Paraffin Body Masque.
“I’ve been 10 or 11 times,” says the New York–based integrative physician Frank Lipman, health guru to Donna Karan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Gwyneth Paltrow. “Rancho is the original spa—what Deborah’s been teaching for the past 70 years is only now recognized as important.”
The godmother turns 90 next month, but she could easily pass as a couple of decades younger. Just shy of five feet tall, she looks like a sturdier Dr. Ruth—though without the sexologist’s slumped shoulders, thanks to a four-times-a-week Pilates habit and the strength-training sessions she takes with a former Navy SEAL. Szekely has spent most of the past year finishing her second book, tentatively titled Watch Yourself Grow Younger, and preparing to launch the National Wellness Registry website, which she conceived as an exhaustive, pragmatic resource—“a place where people can find out about walking clubs, hiking clubs, and everything from there on out,” she explains. “I want to get people to take responsibility for their own wellness.”
This pragmatic idealism is what brought Szekely to Washington, D.C., in 1983, where she spent the next 17 years holding posts such as CEO of the Inter-American Foundation, which addressed poverty throughout Latin America, and copresident of the U.S.-Mexico Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange. In short, Szekely’s life is the kind of improbable tale that could only lead to her being exactly the woman she is today.