Deborah Shainman was born in Brooklyn to parents who ate a diet of raw foods; her mother, a nurse, was vice president of the New York Vegetarian Society. The family spent summers at health camps in the U.S. and abroad, where they were hosted by the Hungarian scholar Edmond Szekely, who lectured on the importance of natural living. When Deborah was 16, she worked as Szekely’s secretary. A year later, in 1939, she married him—but when he received orders to return to Eastern Europe and participate in Hitler’s war effort, the newlyweds, both Jewish, headed instead to Mexico, where they settled into an adobe house in the middle of a small vineyard.
Since Szekely’s acolytes were already used to traveling to his camps, Tecate became just another exotic spot where they could set up tents, stay for a week, and live a communal existence, pitching in with the gardening and cooking when they weren’t hiking, playing volleyball, or taking dips in the nearby Tecate river. In the afternoons, guests gathered outside Szekely’s hut for his talks—on everything from responsible sun exposure to the dangers of pesticides and cigarettes, pronouncements that at the time had the air of prophecy. Since Szekely had a number of expat friends in Los Angeles—there was a large Hungarian presence in Hollywood, including the founders of both Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox—showbiz types like William Holden, Barbara Rush, Kim Novak, and Burt Lancaster started to make the trek.
By the fifties, the importance of exercise was catching on, but following through occasionally presented a problem for better-known actors. “Kim Novak had a wonderful hourglass figure,” Szekely says. “But one day she told me, ‘Deborah, it’s so hard exercising with people looking at my big bottom. I’m beginning to get a thing about it.’ So we opened the Door.” With its serene Japanese-garden setting and an 18-guest capacity, the Golden Door provided ideal privacy for actors to shape up for their next film role.
“In those days, nobody had trainers,” Szekely says. “They didn’t even know what a massage was. So they’d come and spend a month—and they worked—and the studio paid for it.”
Though she sold the Golden Door in 1998 and last year handed over control of Rancho to her daughter, Sarah Livia Brightwood, Szekely still regularly visits both spas to conduct lectures, which are feverishly attended. “I never know what I’m going to say,” she admits one night in the cozy studio that also hosts classes with names like Guided Meditation and Inner Journey. Seated in an armchair in front of 50 or 60 disciples stretched out on mats and dressed in sweatpants and fleece tops, Szekely says: “I just know that there’s so much I’m really angry about. Did anyone see that Congress has named pizza a vegetable?”