Happy Birthday, Deborah!

05/03/2012 12:43 pm ET | Updated Jul 03, 2012
  • Gail Sheehy author "Passages" contributing editor to Vanity Fair

Will you still love yourself at 64? What about 90? My role model is Deborah Szekely. Seventy years ago she was a pioneer of the mind/body/spirit movement, when she co-founded America's original health and fitness ranch, Rancho la Puerta, just over the southern California border in Tecate, Mexico. Ninety years young this week, Deborah has been following its philosophy and teaching self-care to hundreds of thousands of others ever since.

I love the story of how the "modern" fitness boom really began. On the brink of World War II, when Deborah was 18, she married professor Edmond Szekely, a Hungarian Jew 20 years her senior. They were welcomed into Hollywood by the large Hungarian film colony.

When the war broke out, a letter came ordering Edmond to report to his regiment in Romania and fight under Hitler. He ignored it. Another letter, this time, from U.S. Immigration, informed him that if he were found in the United States after June 1, 1940, he would be arrested as a deserter and deported as a felon.

With their worldly goods stuffed into a 1928 Cadillac, Deborah and Edmond fled to Tecate, a dusty border town of 400.

Together they started a health school of preventive therapy in what Edmond pronounced "the healthiest climate in the world." Students paid $17.50 a week to squat in tiny huts. Creaking windmills for water, kerosene for heat and outhouses were on the list of amenities.
Guests ate from an organic garden and drank grape juice while most Americans were developing their love of burgers and fries and sedentary TV consumption. These earliest devotees of organic eating, hiking and meditation were branded by The San Diego Union "a strange cult."

That strange cult, of course, grew like a fabulous weed starting in the 1960s. The professor died and Deborah took charge of making the ranch a mecca for innovative minds exploring self-healing practices from aerobic exercise to vegetarian diets and every form of yoga. The ranch only caught on as the poor man's Golden Door (which Deborah opened in 1958 and where she still lectures weekly) when celebrities such as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Johnny Weissmuller began alternating between the two.

Deborah reinvents herself at least every seven years. Turning fifty, she found that going to the same parties in San Diego was a bore; she knew what people would say before they said it. With no political experience, she ran for Congress. When that dream failed, she boldly presented herself to the Reagan administration as an ideal diplomat to Central and South America. Her passion won that post. She spent the next seven years traveling the region to search out grassroots businesses for micro-loan funding. Her next dream -- to develop a national leadership-training program for CEOs of nonprofit organization -- kept her on planes more often hours than she spent in bed sleeping.

Her philosophy has never changed: After 60, either move a lot more or eat a lot less. Exercise more but differently. Never stop learning, meditating and climbing mountains. And always look for meaningful ways to give back.

She has survived one of the most unthinkable tragedies. Her only son, Alex Szekely, the man she had trained to take over the reins of the ranch, was stricken with cancer about ten years ago. Deborah cared for him, tirelessly searching for holistic modes to promote healing along with medicine, but had to accept failure. After mourning his death, she hoped that her daughter Livia would wish to take over for her. But Livia was a landscape designer and living in England. Practicing exceptional restraint, Deborah claims she did not pressure her daughter. Recently, Livia came around. She will preserve Rancho la Puerta in the spirit of her mother and the professor.

Only a week ago, when we met for lunch in New York, I asked Deborah where she finds spiritual refreshment. "In nature," she said. "I think anyone who lives close to sun and open sky and growing things, and walks in mountains or fields, feels the presence of God." She also allows herself, at 90, to languish in bed for an extra hour on Sunday mornings, and just think. "We have to take time out from all the distractions and communications coming at us, to let our dreams catch up with us." And so, of course, she has a new idea, a new vision. She wants to use social media to create a national conversation around the crisis of childhood obesity.
"I am not ready to be 90," she told me. "It is just words. I have as much passion and ambition as I have had at any age." Thank God for the inspiration of Deborah Szekely. Let's hope we all have a new dream at ninety.