By Iris Engstrand

The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Winter 2017, Volume 63, Number 1
Rancho La Puerta: Where the Fitness Revolution Began (PDF)


Deborah Szekely, Rancho la Puerta ca.
1980s. Photo Szekely family collection.

As the sun rises and casts its shadows over a peaceful, picturesque valley on the outskirts of the small Mexican town of Tecate, a day at Rancho La Puerta begins. This ranch, unlike others in the vicinity, is a unique experiment in effective living. Although called a health resort, or a fitness spa, it is much more than that—it is a revelation, the opportunity for a new beginning, indeed, a new life. The history of Rancho La Puerta is the personal story of its founders Deborah Shainman and Edmond Bordeaux Szekely (pronounced Say-Kay), their relationship with the Mexican people of Tecate, and their dedication to centuries-old fitness concepts drawn from a collective knowledge of humanity. Originally the ranch, as the Essene School of Life, was an experiment; today it embodies the successful results of that experiment.

Ahead of its time even at its founding, Rancho La Puerta remains in the forefront of healthful nutrition and physical well being. Ideas that were once the providence of “health nuts” have become personal goals for the thousands who have passed through its gate on the road to renewal. Perhaps Rancho La Puerta’s secret is that it started out as a school and maintained many of the early teachings implanted at its founding, and continued as a learning institution dedicated to the transformation of the mind as well as the body. Deborah Szekely, her daughter Sarah Livia, and their closely-knit Mexican family, expertly carry on the Rancho La Puerta traditions. This is their story.1

Family Background

Deborah Shainman, the daughter of Rebecca Sudman and Harry Shainman, natives of Ukraine and Poland, was born in New York on May 3, 1922. Her father, a tailor in Brooklyn, provided a comfortable home for Deborah and her younger brother Joseph. Her mother, a registered nurse and vice-president of the New York Vegetarian Society, was a kind and selfless person known for her soothing ways and healing touch. Because of several serious illnesses, Rebecca had been converted in 1924 to a natural, self-help way of living. She shunned meat and fed her family raw vegetables, fruit, and nuts. Deborah recalled that almost every weekend they hiked to a different health camp. Midweek, the family listened to the radio and she “fell asleep listening to health lectures all over Manhattan.”2

Deborah’s parents Harry Shainman and Rebecca
Sudman Shainman, 1925. Photo Szekely
family collection.

After the stock market crash in 1929, the Shainmans found that fresh fruits and nuts were not only expensive, but rarely available. In 1930, when the Great Depression began to inflict severe financial hardships to many in the United States, the family was curiously fortunate. Harry Shainman took a courageous step and invested their remaining funds in a steamship ticket for Tahiti, moving the family to the mid-Pacific French island to pursue their vegetarian diet, escape the rigors of New York winters, and take part in the unhurried life of Polynesia. This event irrevocably transformed their lives.3 To maintain themselves there, Harry sold coconuts while Rebecca delivered babies. Deborah, a bright and inquiring student, attended a convent school where the official languages were Tahitian and French. Once adjusted, she looked upon the move as an adventure. Deborah, an avid reader, recalled, “I guess it all began at the school in Tahiti, because there I had to learn not by listening but by watching…. Direct observation is the key to everything I have learned.”4 This was also where she made the acquaintance of a fascinating European professor of primitive cultures, Dr. Edmond Bordeaux Szekely.

Edmond Szekely camp in Tahiti, c. 1933. Szekely family collection.

The professor, as he was called throughout his life, came from an educated, middle-class family of Hungarian and Jewish background. His ancestors in Transylvania had enjoyed landholdings dating from the time when the Roman Empire encompassed much of Eastern Europe. Transylvania (meaning beyond the forest) was developed into a distinctive autonomous unit with its own governor, constitution, and united nobility descended from Saxon, Szekler, and Magyar colonists. The Szekler were Magyar frontier guards sent to Transylvania to protect its eastern flank. At earlier times under Hungarian domination, the territory of Transylvania became part of the country of Romania.

Edmond, born March 5, 1905, was multi-lingual even as a young child. He attended local schools in Cluj, the historic capital of Transylvania, located some 200 miles northwest of Bucharest. He received a bachelor’s degree in a combined major of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy from the University at Cluj.5 As a professor, Szekely

Professor Edmond Bordeaux Szekely,
c. 1940. Photo Szekely family collection

lectured in France and Switzerland on simple, natural methods of healing, and developed a holistic approach toward medicine. He deplored the lack of essential vitamins and minerals in commercial foods and advocated that “every family have a miniature garden in which to work a few minutes daily, preferably in a bathing suit. These gardens yield good vegetables and the one who works them gains moderate exercise in the sun.”6 Szekely warned, however, that no more than twenty minutes sun exposure was necessary for sufficient vitamin D.

During the late 1930s, the professor became director of a British International Health and Education Center in Leatherhead, England. Szekely lectured and published books with C.W. Daniel Co. Ltd. on a variety of topics in several languages. His main interest centered on factors affecting the lifestyle and nutrition of primitive peoples throughout the world. He did extensive research into the cultures and traditions of the Aztecs in Mexico, the Maoris in New Zealand, and the Polynesian peoples in Tahiti. Prior to World War II, Szekely gave up his position in England, along with interests in Nice where he lived in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean, in order to pursue his studies in Mexico. He also left behind a health resort that he had founded at Aspremont in the Alps.

The Founding of Rancho La Puerta

Following their initial acquaintance in Tahiti, Dr. Szekely and the Shainmans continued their friendship during the summers at various health camps ranging from Lake Elsinore, California, to the banks of Río Corona in Tamaulipas, Mexico. In 1939, when the professor’s secretary returned to England, Deborah began to attend to the practical details of her mentor’s life. She had graduated from high school and decided that the professor and his colorful group of health faddists were more interesting than attending college. Together she and Edmond made plans for a permanent school site in England. Their close association led to romance and they were married on December 26, 1939.7 Because of wartime conditions Szekely could not safely return to Europe, and lacking a proper visa to enter the United States, could not legally settle there.8 He knew that Tecate, Mexico, had a temperate climate with maximum sun that would be conducive to healthy living. Through a curious set of circumstances—a shipwreck and a broken-down bus—he ended up at Nogales, Mexico, and from there walked across the hot Sonora desert through Mexicali and on to Tecate, where he arrived on June 4, 1940. He first met Don Felipe Cipriano and his wife, a kindly couple who gave him food and a place to sleep, but more importantly, introduced him to their nephew Cipriano Federico who owned the ranch across the road. The professor recounted the incident:

Szekeley group of followers at Lake Elsinore, c. 1937. Photo Szekely family collection.

…he was very jovial and hospitable and showed me around his ranch, which was much larger than I had imagined. Walking along, we came to an unusual oak tree, venerable and ancient, whose trunk reached upward only to curve into a stately arch and enter the ground again. Almost at the very point where the trunk reached again to the ground was a well, also very ancient-looking, I asked Don Cipriano about it and he told me an interesting story. The well was indeed old, and no one could remember a time when it had ever gone dry. It was said that even the great drought of the long-ago past, when the Cochimi Indians were still sovereigns of this land, this well—the well of La Puerta—had always been a source of water. It was called the well of La Puerta because of the natural arch of the oak tree, forming a kind of gate, and the Spanish word for gate is La Puerta.9

After his tour of the ranch, Professor Szekely negotiated the rental of a dilapidated old barn and a surrounding area of approximately 20 x 25 yards for about ten pesos a month. A search for food brought him to the house of Cipriano’s brother, Ignacio Federico (called Nacho), who offered to sell him a

Essene School of Life publication, Leatherhead, England.
Szekely family collection.

quart of goat’s milk a day along with some grapes from the nearby vineyards. During the next few days, Szekely explored the fertile, green valley and found a creek called Arroyo de Cuchuma, which took its name from the majestic mountain at the northwestern end of the valley, long revered by the local Indians as a holy site.10 Upon climbing Mt. Cuchuma and looking over the valley of La Puerta, he decided to establish an Essene School of Life, where he would not only write books about the ancient Essenes, but “would have students from all over the world, incorporating them into a cooperative way of living in a self-subsistent, creative atmosphere, similar to the Essene community at Qumran at the Dead Sea.”11 The Mexican town of Tecate was even in the exact same north latitude as Galilee, where Jesus of Nazareth had spent the greater part of his ministry.12 Moreover, Szekely’s school would have the advantage of “the perfect climate and abundant gifts of nature of the green La Puerta valley, instead of the harsh and arid desert.”13

After adding windows and doors to the barn, Professor Szekely ordered 100 pounds of soybeans from a friend at Lake Elsinore and obtained 100 pounds of wheat from a local source. He soaked the soy beans and wheat, germinating the grains, mixed the two together, ran them through a small meat grinder obtained from the Tecate hardware store, and formed tortillas from the resulting paste. An old recipe found in Professor Szekely’s book called The Zend Avesta of Zarathustra instructed that they be baked on hot, flat rocks to produce a delicious bread. After planting some fast-growing onion and radish seeds to add vegetables to his diet of goat’s milk, grapes, and bread, the professor was ready to set up permanent housekeeping.

Deborah, then just eighteen years old, arrived in Tecate two days after her husand via a more direct route. She and Edmond had received a 1928 Cadillac as a wedding gift from a good friend who had been a member of the Río Corona seminar in Mexico. The car, though old in years was in excellent shape, and, as Deborah recalled, had plush silver upholstery and cut-glass bud vases between its side windows. After a short reunion on the American side of the border, the Szekelys headed down the dusty, corrugated road to Rancho La Puerta and began life in the small barn that Deborah converted into a livable home. The Cadillac remained their trusted vehicle for several years.

Once settled, the Szekelys accepted the services of Bud Schroeder, a young German and former seminar student, who stayed at the ranch as a handyman and general helper during its formative period. The purchase of Nacho’s goat, and the acquisition of a half-wild, half-domestic cat called Ahriman, rounded out the unusual group and were on hand for the beginning of a great experiment. From a small desk in the made-over barn, Professor Szekely sketched out his plans to found the Essene School of Life and publish a series of manuscripts about the ancient Mayans, Toltecs, and Aztecs. He proposed to give daily lectures, establish large-scale gardening, and set up a clinical laboratory for medical research to prove the ancient methods of the Essenes. He also planned “for a good number of little cabins and some larger constructions, like a library, providing appropriate accommodations for the people who would follow the different categories of nutrition, treatment by biochemistry, heliotherapy, hydrotherapy, etc.”14 Szekely wrote a long letter to his former publisher in England describing these ambitious plans and outlining the scenic wonders of Tecate, where he intended to wait out World War II.

The lack of accommodations and amenities was no deterrent to the few enthusiastic pioneers who arrived in Tecate during the summer of 1941, pitching their tents at Rancho La Puerta. Some purchased lumber in Tecate and put up permanent dwellings modeled after the first Essene cabins, while those in tents suffered discomfort from the fall rains. Deborah kept busy baking Zarathustra bread and obtaining fresh supplies of goat’s milk, vegetables, and grape juice. She attended to the practical aspects of living while the professor lectured on the advantages of a cooperative venture and a Spartan lifestyle. Despite the difficulties in obtaining certain supplies, more cabins appeared and Rancho La Puerta became a reality.

Tecate: A Town at the Crossroads

Juan Lorenzo Bandini Owner of Rancho San
José de Tecate, c.1840. ©SDHC #10861-4.

Tecate, Mexico, is a small industrial city of some 70,000 people. Located south of the international border, thirty-three miles east of Tijuana, it overlooks a valley flanked by rolling hills and spectacular mountains. It is 1,800 feet above sea level with a dry Mediterranean climate and summer temperatures ranging up to 95°F and higher. In the beginning, the land was inhabited by Cochimí Indians, a hunting and gathering group linguistically related to the Yuman-speaking nations of the Colorado River and surrounding desert. Descendants of these original native inhabitants continue to live in an area south of Tecate. The United States border runs along the northern part of the valley and downtown Tecate, built adjacent to the dividing line, is about 40 miles east of San Diego. On the Mexican side, highways serve outlying agricultural regions and connect Tecate with Mexicali to the east and Ensenada to the south. An express toll road runs west to Tijuana. The existence of these crossroads was crucial to Tecate’s early survival, but today’s large brewery, coffee-processing plant, electronics assembly plants, Rancho La Puerta, and other service-related industries ensure the city’s continuing growth.

Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and settlers arrived in the area in mid-1769 and continued the founding of a series of missions from San Diego to north of San Francisco. Previously the northern Baja California missions had been established by the Dominican order following expulsion of the Jesuits.15 Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 and encouraged the granting of private ranchos to populate the vast lands of California. Don Juan Lorenzo Bandini, a San Diego resident, was granted the 4,439 acres Rancho San Jose de Tecate in 1833. His nearest neighbors were members of the Pico family of Rancho Jamul. The Franciscan missions were turned over to secular authorities in 1834 and natives lost the protection of the religious arm of the government. By 1837, the local Cochimí, displaced and unhappy, joined the Yuma tribes and plotted to exterminate the ranchers. Indians attacked Bandini’s ranch, destroyed the buildings, and dispersed the herds. They burned the mission at Guadalupe to the southwest, killed three soldiers, and continued their plundering for the next several years. The Bandini family moved back to San Diego and offered the ranch for sale in 1855.16

Camp Lockett, Campo, California. ©SDHC #3807, 1947.

The U.S.-Mexican War, which permanently separated Tecate and all of Baja California from Alta California, ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. There were several proposals to draw the boundary line farther to the south, or farther to the north, but in the end the line approximated the 1772 division between the Dominican mission territory of the south and the Franciscan missions to the north; Mt. Cuchuma was split in two, with its peak just on the American side. U.S. Calvary troops were sent to Campo, Calexico, Yuma, and other border areas to maintain order. Troops were also stationed in Tecate, California, during World War II to maintain neutrality of the border. Camp Lockett, the cavalry training area at Campo, remained until after World War II. When horses became obsolete from a military standpoint, the camp began to host Italian prisoners-of-war.

The border areas and Tijuana, with its gambling casino at Agua Caliente, provided an attraction for tourists. Prohibition in the United States gave rise to numerous bars in Tecate where Americans could drink and plot ways to smuggle liquor across the border. Customs officers were kept busy with the constant search for alcohol. Life returned to a slow pace during the depression years when wages tumbled, the prohibition amendment was repealed, and gambling was declared illegal by Mexican president Lazaro Cárdenas. Nevertheless, some development continued during the 1930s with the establishment of vegetable-oil processing plants, flourmills, and other light industry. The first malt processing plant in Baja California was established in Tecate in 1939 and border activity continued to thrive. In 1943, Cervecería Cuahtemoc, a small brewery, was founded near the Tecate River. The naturally pure local water supply provided the key ingredient for making excellent beer, today marketed under the names Tecate, Carta Blanca, and Bohemia.

Tecate was a small but diversified Mexican town with a temperate climate, clear air, and friendly people, far from modern in the days before World War II. With a population numbering about 400, it was an ideal setting for the kind of life envisioned by Professor Edmond Bordeaux Szekely when, on June 6, 1940, he showed his young wife Deborah their residence in the former barn at Rancho La Puerta.

The Essene School of Life: Siempre Mejor (Always Better)

In the beginning, Professor Szekely established the Essene School patterned after the simple life advocated by the Essene monks of pre-biblical days. As people began to hear about the school and arrive in significant numbers, he decided that everything should be organized on a cooperative basis with three categories of membership. Category B included all persons who came to improve their health, to study, and to receive the benefit of educational instruction. A payment of $12.50 per week covered their cost to the school, and they were obligated to contribute two and a half hours a day to educational and cultural activities. The work, as it evolved, included a variety of occupations. Some helped to print, staple and prepare the booklets for Professor Szekely’s lessons, others worked in the vegetable garden, did carpentry, prepared food, ran errands, helped to organize plays and musicals, and did whatever was necessary for the health, happiness and progress of the school.

Outdoor exercise at early camp, 1945, Szekely family collection

Essene School and Grape Valley Lodge, Tecate, c. 1944. Photo Szekely family collection.

The unique and long lasting relationship with the Mexican people began because of those in Category C. They paid $25.00 per week, making it possible to hire one Mexican worker to do the work that each of these guests would normally contribute. All of the Mexican workers together comprised Category A. By the fifth summer, there were some one hundred health enthusiasts living at Rancho La Puerta. They planted trees and vegetable gardens, worked diligently at improving their surroundings, and upheld the Essene goals of “a universal, liberal, humanitarian, educational center for the omnilateral study and optimal application of all the values of human culture.” The school announced its belief in the Fatherhood of God, the Motherhood of Nature, and the Brotherhood of Man. Their daily motto was “siempre mejor” (always better).

The original Essenes were a religious sect that flourished in Palestine from about the 2nd century BCE to the end of the first century CE. They clustered in secluded monastic communities in which property was held in common, manual labor was essential, and all details of daily life were regulated by officials. They observed the Law of Moses and professed belief in immortality and divine punishment for sin. The Sabbath was reserved for daylong prayer and meditation on the Torah. Common meals were taken in silence and the Essenes generally devoted themselves to ascetic lives of justice, piety and healthful living. Following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the vicinity of Khirbet Qumran, scholars have debated whether or not the ancient Jewish sect situated there was Essenic.

Grape Valley Lodge, Tecate, c. 1944. Photo Szekely family collection.

The second summer at Rancho La Puerta was recalled by Deborah as “…one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.” The guests paid approximately $18.75 per week and thrived on the daily routine of climbing the nearby mountain at the crack of dawn, eating mainly grapes, and working together under the hot sun in a remarkable spirit of community. The Tecate River had an unusual rock formation that created a refreshing “Roman Bath.” One of the disadvantages, however, was the lack of permanent dwellings on the ranch.

About this time, Deborah learned that the commanding officer at Camp Lockett, the U.S. Cavalry camp at Campo, had ordered thirty wooden packing crates that had been used to pack airplane engines to serve as horse stalls. Since they were about five feet wide and ten to twelve feet long, they were definitely too small for horses, but just maybe large enough for people. They were well built with inlaid linoleum and, after being declared war surplus, were available for purchase. Deborah gathered together most of the monetary resources of the group and determined that she could pay $27.00 per crate. Since no one else bid for them, she was the only purchaser. They had traded the 1928 Cadillac for a Model A flat bed truck in which they “trundled each packing case down, and those became our first houses.” They cut two or three windows and a door and furnished each with a surplus army cot and mattress, a chair, tin desk, and a small box for storage. The crates were arranged in an orderly pattern around the property and formed the nucleus of Rancho La Puerta.

As guests filled up the “houses,” the ranch brought in extra money. This was used to construct the first permanent building—the library. The professor had amassed a large collection of books that he considered indispensable as guides to the Essene ideals. These included great works of philosophy, religion, literature, music, art, science, health, and hygiene. It housed the mimeograph and the Szekelys began to send out lectures to corresponding members who paid $10.00 per year to participate in the Essene teachings for the science of life. Based in “the pure and original intuitive knowledge which man once had of natural law,” these lessons were “reconstructed by Professor Szekely through scientific research, archeological finds, and philosophical interpretation … [They would] guide man in the realization of a more perfect physical, social and spiritual existence. “17 The Essenes believed in the power of human thought, truth over error, love, fraternity and cooperation, and the worth of the individual. Membership in the school grew along with the number of guests staying at the ranch.

Techniques, Cures, and Programs

Initially the professor and his followers tried different techniques for achieving a more perfect way of life. In one method they attempted to remain completely silent two days a week and then fast for varying periods of time. Deborah recalled that they gave “all kinds of mud baths to people who liked to bathe and compounded it and mixed it with sulphur, Epsom salts and all kinds of things.”18 They tried 30 to 40 different combinations of mud and chemicals and even tried sloshing people about in the mud. They finally abandoned the mud baths, but turned to a most interesting and long-lasting experiment known as the grape cure.

The “Original Biochemical Grape Cure” was a three-week session at the ranch for $75.00 and was popular during the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was based upon the practice of the ancient Essenes who, in their brotherhoods at the Dead Sea, cultivated grapes extensively. According to Professor Szekely, “the grape has a general cleansing quality enabling the system to throw off toxins and rebuild the blood cells. It augments assimilation, increases vitality and resistance to disease…. The grape cure’s greatest achievement is the renewal of the blood corpuscles…Grapes are also naturally alkalizing and contain certain enzymes which improve gastric functions, and are beneficial even in cases of chronic constipation.”19 At Rancho La Puerta, “the biochemical grape cure made use of all the natural forces, sunshine, fresh air, outdoor living in the right climate, rest, relaxation and exercise, in balanced combinations.”

The daily program at Rancho La Puerta during the early years was carefully planned and consisted of the following routine:

Daily Program20

Property Acquisition to Expand the Ranch

Goats at Rancho La Puerta, 1942. Photo Szekely family collection.

By the end of the 1950s, many improvements had been made to upgrade the facilities at Rancho La Puerta. From the beginning, the Szekelys understood that to produce all that was necessary to sustain the community at the ranch, more land was required. Through a fortunate set of circumstances, this became possible as land became available. The nucleus of the ranch remained at “La Puerta” itself, which the professor purchased piece by piece from Don Cipriano Federico when he needed money, which was often. In order to provide the ranch residents with freshly-baked Zarathustrian bread, they purchased a small ranch eight miles away in Valle Redondo (Round Valley) called Tres Piedras from Odilon Meclis, a Mexican who left to trace his father’s ancestry (Macleish) in England. The 140-acre ranch had 80 acres of wheat and 30 acres of vineyards—perfect for providing the wheat sprouts and wheat greens for the healthful “chlorophyll cocktail,” flour for the bread, and grapes for the winter cure. Then, as the demand for grapes increased, the Szekelys discovered two more ranches covered with lush vineyards for sale by a Sr. Valadez whose dream was to move into the “big city” of Tecate. The 100-acre Rancho Tres Lomas (Three Hills), also in Valle Redondo, contained 40 acres of vineyards and 20 of wheat while Rancho Tres Vinas (Three Vines) nearby produced only grapes.21

Because these ranches differed in elevation from La Puerta, the grapes ripened at different times  and  ensured a much longer grape season. Most of the grapes were of the delicious purple Rosa de Peru variety derived from the Rosa d’Avignon of France. The Tecate vineyards had never been sprayed and were cultivated with a mule and old-fashioned plow. Another acquisition was from Gabriel Arce and called Rancho Tres Aguas (Three Waters) near Valle Las Palmas, four miles from La Puerta. These 250 acres, planted with 40 acres of oats and barley, contained 120 acres of pasture. The rancho took its name from a creek and permanent spring. The Szekelys used the ranch to keep beehives for the production of fresh honey. From this the professor developed a beverage called Hydromel. Rancho Bella Vista, planted entirely in corn, was acquired from Pasqual Cardenas, while Rancho Cuchuma, three miles from La Puerta at a higher elevation and nestled at the foot of the mountain, was perfect for their extensive orchards and vegetable gardens. The 330-acre Cuchuma or Tres Estrellas (Three Stars) was purchased from a Sr. Villareal who longed to move to Mexico City. The ranch had a reliable water supply.

The final purchase was Rancho Tacambaro, property that joined La Puerta on the northwest. It was owned by the former Mexican President, Lázaro Cárdenas. Another former president, Miguel Aleman, who owned an estate with a spacious summer home nearby, gave Rancho La Puerta a gift of 100 olive trees to be planted at Tacambaro.

These properties together comprised about 1200 acres and supported the activities of the Essene school and ranch complex. President Aleman made it possible for Edmond Szekely to obtain Mexican citizenship in 1949. With this accomplished, there was no problem regarding the ownership of the various parcels of land. The Szekelys also acquired property across the border in Tecate, California, for storage, printing and mailing facilities. Many guests praised the wellness agenda at Rancho La Puerta and, during the next two decades, the ranch became modernized and continued its program of health and fitness.

Life at the Ranch

By the early 1950s, Rancho La Puerta had achieved considerable renown as a health spa—a name taken from the town of Spa in the province of Liege, Belgium, famous for its mineral springs used for both bathing and drinking. The Szekelys’ philosophy of healthful living included both water and sun among its basic ingredients. The professor, who once described himself as “an amphibian,” had his guests bathing in the Tecate River until a beautiful stone masonry swimming pool was added to the grounds. Decorated with Toltec mythological figures, the pool had walls two feet thick and a natural rock border. Other amenities, including an electrical plant, transformed the rustic rancho into a comfortable resort.

Below the original barn, which was converted into the professor’s office, the laborers built the vineyard dining room with a central fireplace and adjoining kitchen. They enclosed the well in a picturesque brick pavilion that later became a small office. A new “hygiene building with hot and cold showers, flush toilets and colonic machine” was built near the swimming pool. A lecture hall adjoining the library provided a place where guests could “learn the principles of health and right thinking.”22 Among these were the benefits of sun and water bathing. According to the Essene Quarterly of 1953:

The circulation can be intensified and the ejection of waste products from the body stimulated by two other therapies: heliotherapy and hydrotherapy; or better, by a combination of the two. Great benefits are obtainable by bathing, swimming or doing water exercises outdoors or by taking a simultaneous water, air and sunbath. The latter application consists in lying in shallow water first with the back in the water and the front of the body exposed to the air and sun, and then vice versa. If this is practiced a few times regularly every day, the circulation will be greatly intensified, as will breathing by the skin. Moreover, the absorption of the sun’s rays has a bactericidal action. The total effect is to intensify the elimination of waste matter from the organism, an important aim in the grape cure.23

Because the ranch improvements were all completed by local Mexican labor, the Szekelys established an excellent working relationship with the people of Tecate. Among these early employees were members of Cipriano Federico’s family. His sons (and later grandsons) served in many capacities of responsibility. Also among the families working at the ranch were Aureliano Silva, his wife Lucy, and their extended family.

Toltec figure from Filosofia del Mexico Antiguo.

In keeping with his archeological studies in Central Mexico, the professor trained the artisans to make concrete models of the most significant cosmological symbols, reproducing the original colors of Aztec gods in sizes of about 2 feet x 2 feet. These were placed all over the ranch so that students and guests could “absorb through spiritual osmosis the beauty and meaning of those pictographs without any conscious study or effort.”24 The study of these artifacts, plus a collection of several thousand volumes on Mexico’s history, literature, art, and philosophy, eventually developed into the establishment of a Society of Comparative Studies of Ancient Cultures. Don Eufrazio Santana, Mayor of Tecate, Don Antonio Girbau, and Don Fernando Cecena all helped the Szekelys legalize their multiple and rather unusual activities.

As a vivid recreation of ancient Mexico, the professor taught his students how to play a Toltec ball game constructed in exact archeological detail. The game, which he described as “a fiendishly clever and physically demanding one, utilizing the movements of soccer, basketball and hockey…was also highly symbolic and full of hidden meaning.”25 Each movement and action played a role in the eternal cosmic battle between Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent—a benevolent God-creator and symbol of good—and Huitzilopochli, the jaguar—a warlike bloodthirsty symbol of evil. Some of the other symbols were mazatl, the deer, representing peace; malinalli, grass, life; and xochitl, the flower, joy. Twenty wooden idols were placed in the form of a large X representing the symbol of giffin, the sun, or creation, perhaps the most important of ancient Mexico. In the center of the X was the symbol of man, called Tia, who dwelled in the house of the gods. According to Professor Szekely, the idea of the game was to traverse all the idols, journeying from a symbol of good to a symbol of evil, struggling with each in turn, starting at the outermost rim of the large X and working toward the center—that as powers of good and evil are utilized and mastered, the good forces enriching our lives, the evil ones teaching us valuable lessons, life’s pilgrimage becomes less and less difficult, until finally we reach the center of the journey— the Teocalli in the middle of the field of wooden idols—where there is no good

According to Professor Szekely, the idea of the game was to traverse all the idols, journeying from a symbol of good to a symbol of evil, struggling with each in turn, starting at the outermost rim of the large X and working toward the center—that as powers of good and evil are utilized and mastered, the good forces enriching our lives, the evil ones teaching us valuable lessons, life’s pilgrimage becomes less and less difficult, until finally we reach the center of the journey— the Teocalli in the middle of the field of wooden idols—where there is no good and no evil, only oneness in the Eternal Present.

Ediciones de la Academia de Filosofia, Tecate, Baja
California, Mexico. Szekely family collection.

These idols and their significance were described in full in Edmond Szekely’s book La Filosofia del Mexico Antigua published in Tecate in 1954. Discussion of the game spread among the Mexican workers until the Catholic priest in Tecate began to preach against the pagan cult services at Rancho La Puerta. After a visit to the ranch, the professor, who could recite portions of the Catholic liturgy in Latin, convinced the priest that the “idols” were a mere learning device. The priest then acknowledged the Szekelys as good friends of Mexico and told his Mexican followers that they could work with pride at the ranch.

The modern lecture hall had staging facilities and was decorated with the pictographic symbols of the Mayan, Toltec and Aztec cultures of Mexico. Guests gathered there each evening to enjoy the lectures, question and answer periods, scenic and educational films, or performances of the Little Theater Group of   La Puerta. In the department of Arts and Crafts guests learned techniques of blending colors on silver and copper pins, and the art of tooling ancient Mexican and primitive designs on leather, or enjoyed other artistic endeavors. A playroom was built for guests to use for reading, bridge, or backgammon.

The food at Rancho La Puerta consisted generally of organically grown tender greens and natural, sweet wheat sprouts, soy-butter, wheat germ butter, Swiss muesli, fruit salad, homemade wheat germ tortillas and rolls, homemade acidophilus (yoghurt like) milk drinks, herb teas, and grape juices taken every hour between meals. The professor developed a multi-food supplement called “Nutr-all” after years of nutritional and biochemical research. It consisted of twenty-three ingredients representing the natural mineral, vitamin, amino acid and other nutritional values most widely recommended by health professionals. Its components were skim milk and wheat germ powder, rice polish, and powders of malt, soy, carob, cottonseed, sunflower seed, lactose, dextrose, flaxseed, brewer’s yeast, whey, deep-sea kelp, sea lettuce, watercress, mint, lemon, celery seed, dandelion, alfalfa, parsley and mustard greens. Another nutritional supplement was called “Formula 89” and contained 22 pure, organically grown foods in the form of a dehydrated powdered vegetable mix.

The Health Gymnasium and Outdoor Physiotherapy Department became one of the most popular spots. Situated between the swimming pool and one of the vineyards surrounding the school, it was devoted to the achievement and improvement of circulation, posture, oxygen transport (lung and skin breathing), internal massage, basic metabolism, relaxation, complexion, and vitamin D absorption. It included terraces with equipment for simultaneous sun-air-water baths with aromatic herbs, skin massages with aromatic oil, slanting boards, and a large glass solarium.

By 1953 there were 125 guests’ rooms varying from an adobe house with private bath and patio to 36 little cabins in the vineyards. By 1956 a juice-bar lounge near the swimming pool and library had been provided for guests, then numbering 175, to enjoy several kinds of refreshing drinks at anytime during the day as a supplement to those served at meals. Daily exercises were taught in the outdoor health gymnasium classes, and walking in the fresh air several times a day was encouraged. The scientific reducing method developed by the professor was extremely effective. It was as follows:





Aldous Huxley speaking at Rancho La Puerta,
June 27-July 1, 1960. Szekely family collection

The grounds were improved with landscaping under the direction of Erna Earle. Deborah continued to manage all of the business aspects of the ranch and was particularly skillful in supervising the Mexican workers. Weekly fees at the ranch averaged $35.00 and children were always welcome. Among the many important helpers of those early years were Elizabeth (Betty) McLean and her mother Edith (Adelita) Lydall. They had been in  the  professor’s  seminar in Slimy, England, before the war and lived in Scotland. When they learned about Rancho La Puerta they came immediately. Betty, whose husband Colin was in a Japanese prison camp, became an all-around secretary and helper of wounded or needy animals. She rescued an undernourished donkey that became a regular ranch resident and she saw to it that all of the pets had their rabies vaccinations. Her mother was devoted to the wellness program and assisted with the guests.

By the end of the 1950s, Rancho La Puerta had become a popular and successful year-round health resort and school of “Scientific Living.” Its reputation had spread throughout the United States and even overseas. Exotic guests ranged from movie producer Gabriel Pascal to the well known philosopher Aldous Huxley. Huxley found Rancho La  Puerta a  peaceful haven where he could relax and be himself. Because of Huxley’s interest in the professor’s work, and his own investigations into techniques of expanding the human consciousness, he and his wife Laura joined the Szekelys in planning a symposium. The subject was The Human Potential and was held at the ranch from June 27 through July 1, 1960, as a special twentieth anniversary celebration.

The Szekely’s first child, daughter Sarah Livia, was born April 4, 1956. She spoke Spanish before English and was lovingly cared for by the Mexican families working at the ranch. She faced quite an adjustment on her first day at Francis Parker School in San Diego when she found out that no one, including the teacher, spoke Spanish.

Sarah Livia with goats. Szekely family collection.

When her brother Alexandre was born less than two years later on February 19, 1958, the Szekelys knew they were doubly blessed. He too fell under the watchful eyes of the Mexican employees. Livia, a precocious child, was nicknamed Little Owl, and Alexandre, playful and fun loving, was called Little Bear after his father. The professor had been known since his soccer playing days as El Oso (the Bear) because his movements were just like a big bear. When Alex was old enough to attend Francis Parker School, he was good company for his sister on the trips to and from San Diego since both children returned each weekend to the ranch. Livia wrote her first collection of poems, which she called First Flowers, at the age of ten. Alex preferred athletics, excelling in skiing and sailing. Both were enthusiastic, energetic, well- adjusted, intelligent children who grew up in an incredible atmosphere of love, affection, and intellectual stimulation. And, if that were not enough, they had an entire rancho as a playground.

Alex on a tricycle. Szekely family collection.

Opening the Golden Door

 With Rancho La Puerta on a firm footing, Deborah decided to pursue some new ideas. She had long searched for a place where they could practice the full range of their concepts on a small scale. Deborah recalled that they wanted a resort planned from the start to be small, intimate, and “her” version of heaven. They looked all over southern California and found a small motel for sale in the area of Escondido.26 The cluster of buildings and surrounding wooded area, appropriate for the construction of the Toltec ball game, were perfect for the Szekelys’ plans. They purchased the property in 1958, added ten more rooms, and re-created in each the spirit and style of a separate culture and age in history. They used floral oils belonging to each period, for example ancient Rome, Victorian England, or Provincial France. Those living in each room could absorb the environment and even the fragrance of that long past century.

The professor described the beginnings of the Golden Door. La Puerta, which means door as well as gate in English, provided the noun and golden characterized the special nature of the spa:

Little by little my miniature spa began to exhibit a fascinating array of customs of ancient civilizations, some of which were practiced for health, others for beauty, and still others because of their function in the world picture and philosophical attitudes of the particular age. For example, I reconstructed several Sumerian baths from ancient pictographs…in the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates. When Sir John Marshall first discovered these baths, he thought they were tombs, because the outlines clearly indicated that a human body should lie there. However, they were only four inches deep, far too shallow for a tomb, and gradually it was realized that those sarcophagus-like indentations were for the purpose of bathing.27

This ancient practice, the professor pointed out, was ingenious, practical and esthetic. Since the Sumerians lived in a very dry climate where water was extremely scarce, they were able to achieve their purpose using only a few inches of water:

Sunbathing in a few inches of water. Szekely family collection.

They reclined in the baths with half of the body in the cold water, the other half exposed to the sun. From time to time they turned  over, so that the part of the body which had been exposed to the sun now (most gratefully) went to the cold water, and in a few minutes the process was reversed again. This continuous changing from cold water to hot sun not only alleviated the discomfort of the sun’s heat, but also contributed to a very even, beautiful sun tan.28

Another innovation at the Golden Door (and a popular practice at Rancho La Puerta) was the herbal wrap of ancient Egypt. A person’s body was wrapped in fragrant linens first soaked in steaming water to which various herbs had been added. Those taking the herbal wrap found themselves wrapped gently in tepid linens while their bodies became permeated with the delicious fragrance of fresh herbs.

Certain of the Golden Door exercises were adopted from Leonardo da Vinci’s early sixteenth century system for keeping Italian troops in good condition during the cold winters. In those days the men kept fit so they would be ready for Spring maneuvers or wars to the north. Da Vinci’s exercises are said to constitute the basis of the ballet and were a series of movements based on the Point, the Line and the Circle that drew in space certain geometrical figures. The Point symbolizes stars; the Line, when vertical, represents trees, and when horizontal, water; the Circle stands for the movement of the earth on its axis. These exercises, based on da Vinci’s philosophy of the innate geometric perfection of the human body, provided a constant source of inspiration and challenge to the men and women at the Golden Door who had never before thought of themselves as potentially perfect or the ideal receptacle of the greatest of all miracles—the human spirit.

Typical guess room, Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, 1966. ©SDHC #93:18923-386-2. Schneider Collection.

Because of Professor Szekely’s dedication to water in all forms, a concept that was a major part of the daily routine at Rancho La Puerta, the swimming pool was one of his first concerns at the Golden Door. As the professor wrote in regard to the ranch: “I wanted very much to reconstruct some of the ancient uses of water not only as a therapy, but as a way to expand the consciousness and create for ourselves an atmosphere of familiarity and love of water—a source of infinite energy to the ancient Essenes, who called it the angel of Water, and considered it as the physical reflection of the Angel of love…I also reconstructed the Balinese Water Dance, performed in the rivers of Bali by the temple dancers to achieve suppleness—movements older that their recorded history.”29

Everything went very well at the Golden Door after the first year and there was almost always a waiting list. Deborah kept the spa running smoothly and the professor traveled from Rancho La Puerta to give lectures once a week. Because of the individual attention given to guests (a 1 to 3 ratio), the nutritional requirements, the extensive exercise program, and the number of activities, administration of the spa was demanding. In their search for the optimal director, the Szekelys were fortunate to find Dr. Anne Marie Bennstrom, a young woman who had received her physical culture training at the University of Lund in her native Sweden. She had been operating a successful health and exercise center nearby and was admirably suited to take on the Golden Door. She favored the simple, natural way of life and had once spent months hiking alone in the mountains of Central America and Mexico. Her philosophy appealed to those among the guests who, despite their wealth and achievements, still searched for something to give greater depth and substance to their minds and spiritual lives.

Library, Rancho La Puerta, Tecate, 1960. ©SDHC
#93:18923-409. Schneider Collection.

In keeping with his philosophy of nature, the professor produced his own oils and lotions to protect and pamper the skin of the guests. Many additional cosmetics resulted in “a biochemical overhaul of the traditional commercial products.” Using natural botanical sources, the professor’s foundations and lotions were immediately popular. Deborah saw to the practical aspects of packaging these cosmetics and the reputable “Golden Door” line of products was born. Many that were developed at Rancho La Puerta were widely used at both resorts.

One of the problems of the Golden Door arose from its success. Originally designed as a mini-spa, accommodating just 12 guests per week, it received so much attention from the media that there was an immediate demand. As articles appeared in Time, Life, Newsweek, Vogue, and Sports Illustrated, the unique spa attracted more and more of the rich and famous. In 1969 an article appeared in Newsweek describing Rancho La Puerta as the largest health spa in North America and the world-famous Golden Door as the most luxurious beauty resort in existence. It described the professor as owning more than a dozen ranches in California and Baja California, a publishing business, a successful line of cosmetics, and in general as an enviable entrepreneur. For Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, promoter of the simple life of the Essene, it was too much responsibility. He decided to leave the area and search once again for the simple path to truth through archeological and spiritual work. The Szekelys were divorced in 1969.

Into The Modern World — 1970 to 1985

Advertisement during the 1970s for Rancho La Puerta. Szekely family collection.

Rancho La Puerta underwent numerous changes from its early days as the Essene School of Life. Eventually guests no longer contributed a portion of their time to gardening, food preparation, or other tasks. Conversely, the exercise program became more structured and diversified. During its evolution, the Tecate health spa achieved spectacular success both as a pioneer in the fitness revolution and as a business enterprise. Even through its emphasis had always been upon a well-rounded program of balanced nutrition, exercise, and reduction of stress, the ranch became well known for its weight-loss program—a natural byproduct of fitness and improved diet. Articles appeared regularly in local, regional, and national publications extolling the benefits of a stay at Rancho La Puerta.

In 1970 Deborah Szekely made a key decision. Instead of further expanding the ranch accommodations, she decided to limit the number of guests and continue to improve the facilities. Small cabins were removed to make way for more luxurious Mexican style haciendas, cabanas and casitas. The sprawling 100 acres of the ranch allowed widely separated clusters of individual houses to continue. Plans for a new two-bedroom villa complex complete with a large swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna, and additional tennis courts, were sketched with care. During the late 1970s, Rancho La Puerta pointed with pride to a staff of 200 to meet the needs of 100 guests.

Among the Mexican families working at the ranch, one, in particular, was representative of the kind of relationship that the Szekelys developed with the people of Tecate. In February 1961, José Rodolfo Jasso, his wife Cecilia, and their young son José Manuel, originally from the state of Jalisco, began working at the ranch. Rodolfo worked on the grounds and buildings while Cecilia helped in the kitchen, and was eventually given charge of the herbal wraps. Some 25 years later, Cecilia was still at the ranch, skillfully wrapping guests in her herb-drenched hot linens and sending them into a relaxed 45-minute period of comfort. José Manuel became familiar with all of the ranch’s operations and served as general manager for many years. He and Deborah collaborated on every aspect of the ranch’s administration and development.

A Day at Rancho La Puerta

Toltec Ball game, nearly impossible to complete, c. 1960. Schneider Collection. ©SDHC #93:18923-409.

Despite its upgraded conveniences, Rancho La Puerta has maintained the same fundamental philosophy espoused by Deborah’s family in pre-Depression New York and by Professor Szekely as a result of his European background and training. The regimen of the early days, in keeping with the Essene belief in fresh air, sunshine, and simplicity, has provided the basis for the overall structure of the daily program. An essentially vegetarian diet is maintained with the exception of small servings of fish two or three times a week. The Toltec ball game has been replaced by basketball and volleyball, but the original carved figures of the ancient Mexican idols still decorate the grounds. Guests arriving at the ranch for the first time are given a guided tour of the facilities and, on the first evening, hear a short presentation from each of the fitness experts on the staff. For many, the most essential offering at the ranch is exercise, beginning at 6:30 a.m. with a brisk mountain hike on a high trail overlooking the ranch. This challenging feat rewards the hardy with pure bracing air, a view of the peaceful valley and farmlands below, and a healthy appreciation for the nutritious breakfast awaiting the hiker’s return.

A popular alternative to this rather strenuous climb is the morning walk at 7:00 a.m. that takes its participants on a wide circle across the rolling hills of the ranch or to the organic garden. Still others can join the advanced parcours at 7:45 a.m. or the wake-up exercises at 8:00. Breakfast, buffet style, consists of fresh fruit, boiled eggs, natural whole-grain cereals, ranch bread (baked in huge ovens daily), hot tea or coffee.

During the morning, guests can choose from several offerings each hour that, if appropriate, are noted as either vigorous, especially for men, or given on certain days only. These include body awareness, resistance weight conditioning, circuit training, jazzex, Golden Door exercises (a strenuous workout originally introduced at the ranch’s sister spa in Escondido), and a pool class. The professor’s long association with the “angel of water” has been perfected in a series of water- resistant exercises that have since been offered at almost all fitness resorts. Another sport, water volleyball, has also achieved considerable popularity. A variety of activities ranging from jump rope to lectures on stress reduction are offered at 12:00 noon. Lunch is served from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. and includes green salads, plates of fresh fruit, or a “blitz plate” of cottage cheese, fresh lettuce and tomatoes.

Afternoon activities begin at 2:00 p.m with choices of a pool class, stretch  and relax, body contouring, beginner’s parcours, yoga, and a running clinic. Some guests participate in classes while others play tennis, jog, or just relax by the pool. At the 5:30 p.m. “cocktail hour” guests indulge in fresh vegetables, fruit juice, and herb tea. The ranch features a variety of coffees and a chance to sample the local wines and craft beers. The conversation is spirited and there is a feeling of comradeship among people who generally share a belief in physical fitness, and held a new outlook on nutrition and ideas about health that have come down through the ages. Dinner, served at large family-sized tables between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. gives guests the opportunity to continue conversations begun during the day and to meet other people from across the country. The food is basically vegetarian and features salt-free, sugar-free low-calorie recipes perfected over the years at the ranch or at the Golden Door. Evening activities consist of lectures on history, travel, health, and related topics. In addition there are concerts and movies in the Oak Tree Pavilion, classes in arts and crafts, folk dancing, bingo, card playing, or reading in the well-stocked library. Few people have difficulty sleeping in the quiet, relaxing atmosphere of Rancho La Puerta.

Those who wish to be pampered at times throughout their stay can take advantage of the full offerings of the beauty salon, moved to a new, expansive building in 1982, or the therapeutic services offered to ease the discomfort of aching muscles. A Swedish massage or facial, expertly given by local Mexican employees, is available in either the women’s or men’s therapy centers. Many of the Tecate families have been performing these services for ten, fifteen, or even twenty years. Most often spouses, children, and grandchildren work in other areas of the ranch.

The Professor Moves on from Rancho La Puerta

Professor Szekely, c. 1965. Photo Szekely family

By 1971, Professor Szekely had left the ranch permanently to open a lakeside retreat near Guadalajara and bring back the Essene movement. The professor’s new surroundings brought him closer to his early research and once again he reconstructed the Toltec ball game. Through correspondence, he kept in touch with many of his followers who had listened to his morning and evening talks in the rancho lecture room by the library. His lectures had been an inspiration to so many that he agreed to return to San Diego in 1975 for a summer Essene seminar and workshop. He and his followers met at the Swedenborgian church. The gathering was so successful that another seminar was held in 1976. Following this, the professor traveled to British Columbia, where he studied the northwest Indian cultures and renewed acquaintances with former guests who had stayed at Rancho La Puerta. He then spent time in Costa Rica for research into the ancient Toltec ball game and to survey the various fruits and vegetables grown in that region of Central America.

In 1971, the Professor had left his share of the Golden Door and properties in  San Diego to his ex-wife Deborah, his ranches in Baja California to his children Sarah Livia and Alexandre, then 15 and 13, and set up new headquarters on Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara, Mexico. He had his many books shipped to this tranquil setting in order to carry out his plans to write and publish the books he had put off during the thirty years of success at Rancho La Puerta and the Golden Door. In 1979 Edmond Szekely became ill and died in his sleep. During his lifetime he had published more than twenty books, especially those concerning the Essene Gospel of Peace.

Cooking school, Rancho La Puerta, c. 2000. Szekely family collection.

During the early 1970s, Deborah continued to direct activities at both the Golden Door and Rancho La Puerta, care for her two high-school children, and donate her time to anumber of worthy causes in the San Diego area. She married a long-time friend, psychiatrist Dr. Vincent Mazzanti in June 1972, and was becoming nationally recognized for her work in nutrition and fitness. She joined the Board of the Menninger Foundation and President Gerald Ford appointed her to the White House Council on Physical Fitness in 1975. Despite a full schedule, Deborah found time to share her many experiences with “spa living” in a long- awaited book entitled Secrets of the Golden Door published in 1976. It includes not only recommendations for a balanced diet and exercise, but contains her own suggestions for developing an inner peace not unlike that of the early Essenes. Deborah’s long working hours at both health resorts, and her commitment to civic projects, left little time for a settled, married life. Her marriage to Dr. Mazzanti ended in divorce in 1978.

Deborah and Alex Take the Lead

Alexandre Szekely, General Manager
of Rancho La Puerta, c. 1995. Szekely
family collection.

Deborah returned to her former married name of Szekely, and continued behind the scenes at Rancho La Puerta and the Golden Door. She turned over the managerial duties of both spas to her son Alexandre in 1982. Alex, long recognized as a visionary leader in the spa industry, was a founder and president of the International Spa Association. He, along with Deborah, championed a mind/ body/spirit connection to health that transcended the traditional concept of pampering. Alex made a number of improvements at both the Golden Door and Rancho La Puerta during the decade of the 1980s. A new reception area with modern offices was constructed at the Ranch to welcome the newly arrived guests, while several additional villa-type living quarters were built on the hill to the east. A large, modernized dining hall with conference and meeting rooms made it possible for the ranch to meet the increased needs of its clientele. The Vineyard dining room with its center fireplace and unique decorative tiles became “El Mercado”—a marketplace featuring products from throughout Mexico. The maximum number of guests increased to 150—still small enough to continue the individual attention that had become the cornerstone of the ranch’s success. Because of the increase in the number of men participating in structured fitness programs, a new men’s therapy center, much larger than the former small building with its two massage tables, was built. Sadly, Alex was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1998. He and Deborah made the decision to sell the Golden Door to give Alex more free time. He continued to direct Rancho La Puerta and to make improvements until he died prematurely in 2002, a tragic loss mourned by Alex’s extended family on both sides of the border.30

Sarah Livia Szekely Brightwood,
c.2015. Szekely family collection.

Rancho La Puerta, currently managed by Roberto Arjona and Deborah’s daughter Sarah Livia, has remained Deborah’s personal favorite— her own place of renewal among family and friends. She continues to oversee major upgrades at the ranch that have kept up with changing times. For many decades there was little technology inside the ranch, so guests unable to do without media access felt they could not stay there for any length of time. According to General Manager Arjona, there was a tier of the market who would come to the ranch if they had access to high-speed internet.

Trusting the resort’s motto of “siempre mejor” or “always better,” they created three villas that form a private enclave on the eastern edge of the 3,000 acre ranch. Called Villas Cielo, or Heavenly Villas, the suites, which average around 2,000 square feet, contain enclosed patios, pools, and other characteristic amenities of the ranch, plus the Wi-Fi facility. Despite their commitment to an experience far removed from the cares of everyday life, Deborah and her team believe that the villas serve both as a private sanctuary as well as a lifeline to the outside world. They feel that internet for guests does not contradict the ranch’s wellness connection.31

Debrorah Szekely, c. 2016. Photo Szekely family

As the years have passed,  Deborah has accepted each new direction of her life and continued her enthusiastic and rewarding journey in the entrepreneurial world. Unlike her former husband Edmond, she has not been frustrated by the many demands placed upon her. As she stated in 1986 in an interview for the Los Angeles Times: “I’m a typical entrepreneur personality…I have high energy and long working hours. I’m creative, dedicated and perseverant.”32 The next thirty years would prove Deborah’s perseverance, management skills, and adherence to her program of self-improvement through healthful living. She became active in U.S. government service as early as 1970 and worked as President and CEO of the Inter-American Foundation, an independent agency of the United States government to support grass-roots development throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.33 She also founded the post World War II New Americans Museum in 2001, later moved to Liberty Station, and is involved in its programs. Among her many awards, Deborah was named the “Godmother of Wellness,” by the Huffington Post and was inducted into the San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame. She is the author of Cooking With the Seasons at Rancho La Puerta and several other books. Rancho La Puerta was given an award as the Conde Nast Traveller (UK) 2017 Best Fitness Regime in 2017.

As of early 2017, Deborah Szekely remains active in the management of Rancho La Puerta and her many philanthropic programs. She serves on several boards and funds numerous projects relating to education, health and welfare, and the environment, especially those that affect lives the San Diego-Baja California region. She has had an exceptional career and leads a truly amazing life.

Guest cottage, Rancho La Puerta. Szekely family collection.


  1. This article is based upon a number of personal interviews with Deborah Szekely beginning during the 1990s when I was a frequent lecturer at Rancho La Puerta covering its general history. Recent interviews were with Deborah during October and November
  2. Personal interview with Deborah Szekely, c.
  3. According to Deborah, her parents announced they were leaving in 16 days for Tahiti. She did not know where that
  4. Personal interview with Deborah
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid. Deborah Szekely quoting Edmond Szekely.
  7. Deborah worked as Edmond’s secretary for a year. They had plans to return to England but the professor’s passport was canceled so they took the train back to San Francisco. Edmond proposed on the train and she accepted.
  8. Edmond Szekely was officially a member of the Rumanian Reserves who were ordered to join Hitler’s reserves. Since Edmond refused to return to Europe, he was classified as a deserter and remained so throughout World War II
  9. The Great Experiment, p. 14.
  10. See “Romanian professor founds cult across the border at Tecate,” The San Diego Union, July 13, 1949.
  11. Dead Sea location.
  12. The Zend Avesta of Zarathustra.
  13. Essene Quarterly, 25, 1950).
  14. The Great Experiment, 23.
  15. The Jesuit order, which founded 17 missions two-thirds of the way up the Baja California peninsula, were expelled by the Spanish government in The Franciscans took over the missions until 1772 when the Dominicans replaced them in Baja California south of San Diego.
  16. In 1829, the Mexican governor of Alta California José María de Echeandía granted the valley of Tecate as the 4,439 acres (1,796 hectares) Rancho Tecate to Juan In 1836 the mountain dwelling Kumeyaay with aid from former mission neophytes, raided and plundered the rancho. They besieged the ranch house but the men within managed to hold out until it was relieved by a force from San Diego. With his stock and horses stolen and the house burned, Bandini— like owners of other ranchos near San Diego—had to abandon the isolated rancho. Due to the continuing hostilites with the Kumeyaay, Bandini never returned and was compensated with Rancho Jurupa in 1838.
  17. Interview with Deborah Szekely.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Essene Quarterly. Winter, 1949.
  20. Interview with Deborah Szekely; brochure Rancho La Puerta.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Essene Quarterly, 1953.
  24. Interview with Deborah Szekely.
  25. Ibid.
  26. It was owned by nutrionist Martin Pretorious, head of a life-reform movement with a strong emphasis on on health.

    Directional sign, Rancho La Puerta, 2016.

  27. Interview with Deborah Szekely.
  28.  Ibid.
  29.  Ibid.
  30. Obituary, “Alexandre Szekely, 44; operated renowned health spas,” The San Diego Union- Tribune, October 31,
  31. Michele Parente, “More Luxury at Rancho La Puerta,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, October 6,
  32. Interview with Deborah
  33. “Controversial Spa Lady Proves  a  Fit  Choice  as Head of Federal Agency,” Los Angeles Times, February 1986.

Iris Engstrand, Professor of History at the University of San Diego and co-editor of The Journal of San Diego History. She is the author of the recently revised San Diego: California’s Cornerstone (Sunbelt Publications, 2016). Her most recent work is “The Pathway to California: Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and the Building of the San Salvador,” Mains’l Haul, Vol. 51: 1-4, 2015.