The 102-year-old founder of Rancho la Puerta talks about not worrying: ‘I would be an old woman!’

Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, Kate Winslet, Jane Fonda and Bill Moyers have all stayed at the famed Rancho la Puerta spa and wellness center, an exquisite collection of casitas, pavilions, pools and gardens surrounded by mountains on 4,000 acres in Baja California. Mexico.

But the property’s biggest star is Deborah Szkeley, who co-founded the ranch with her husband in 1940 and now, at 102, is the embodiment of everything the property aspires to offer: health, longevity and tranquility.

“The morning I turned 100, I lay in bed and thought, ‘Hey, I’m 100 years old. What is different?’ “I couldn’t think of anything,” says Szekely. Fortune, recently sitting down for an interview in her hotel suite in New York City, where she had flown from her home in San Diego to speak at two different wellness conferences. “I’ve had a wonderful life and when it’s over, it’s over. But I enjoy it,” she states. “I don’t really take on concerns that I can’t do anything about. Otherwise I would be an old woman! But where I can do something, I do something.”

The Brooklyn native has accomplished a lot in her life, including starting and running Rancho la Puerta and also Golden Door, a luxury Japanese spa and resort in San Diego (which she sold in 1998). At age 60 she ran for Congress and served as president of the Inter-American Foundation; At age 80, she realized a long-held dream and founded the New Americans Museum and Immigration Learning Center in San Diego.

All are extensions of her formative years, rooted in values ​​such as healthy living, vegetarianism and sustainability, as espoused by her mother, an Austrian Jewish immigrant and “health nut” who was a registered nurse and vice president of the New York Vegetarian Society. she who put her family on an all-fruit diet. In 1934, she made a bold decision that changed her lives forever.

“It was the Depression. And my dad was very depressed,” recalls Szkeley, née Shainman, who was 12 when his mother caught him examining her life insurance policy and feared he would commit suicide.

“One day my mom came to dinner and said, ‘We’re leaving in 16 days.’ And my brother, my dad and I looked at her and my dad said, ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Tahiti’. And we said, ‘Where is that?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know. But here are the tickets.’” She had chosen her destination for its fresh air and fresh fruits (both were in short supply in New York during the Depression) and soon they all boarded a steamship and spent several weeks traveling by sea to her new destination. home.

“And from then on, we had a different life,” says the centenarian, adding that she remembers “a lot” of the few years they spent in Tahiti, living a rustic lifestyle in a thatched hut, and that she still “Thinks about French most of the time” due to his studies at that time.

While there, the family met another health-conscious transplant: Edmond Szkeley, also known as “the Professor,” a Romanian immigrant and burgeoning health guru known for his writings and lectures on philosophy and ancient religions, exercise, and the value of fresh organic vegetables. Eventually they all returned to the United States and Deborah’s family attended their summer “health camps.” That’s when Deborah decided to work for him and she and Edmond fell in love. They married when he was 34 years old and she was only 17.

“I did it as a way to get out,” he explains. “He was director of the British Society for International Education and Health and was heading to England. And I thought, ‘I’ll go to England and if it works, that’s fine.’ If not, I am free. I can go to France. And it worked. So I stayed.”

Rancho la Puerta Foundation

The new couple, looking for a place to create a health camp together, found their way to Baja California, in part as a way for Edmond to get around the fact that he did not have immigration documents allowing him to remain in the US. They settled there. on a vast piece of land in the foothills of Mount Kuchumaa, writing to friends inviting them to come and stay in that land.

“For $17.50 a week,” he says, “you could bring your own tent.” He took off, she adds, because “my husband was well known.”

They created their own permanent tents, which were soon replaced by cabins built from surplus army packing boxes, and later added vegetable gardens, exercise classes, a dining hall with mostly raw and vegan food (today the menu is Pescatarian), and a printing press. for Edmond’s books. . Advertising in Los Angeles attracted the Hollywood crowd, as it did with the Golden Gate, which Deborah created in 1958 after traveling to Japan a dozen times in a year for inspiration.

The couple had two children and today their daughter, Sarah Livia Brightwood, who has had thousands of trees planted on the property, runs the complex.

“She’s the boss,” Deborah says. “She makes the decisions… I don’t interfere.” (One of her grandsons, a professional surfer, is on the board; the other recently graduated with high honors from the University of Southern California.)

Today Rancho la Puerta, which she calls “the ranch,” is “a small town” with 400 employees. It charges guests $5,100 and up per person for one-week packages and is packed with 20 full-time fitness instructors, 11 gyms, a cooking school, an organic farm, three spa treatment centers, programs including hiking and group workshops, and quiet nature trails for walking, without a single golf cart in sight. Of its 10,000 acres, only about 300 are actively used by guests, which is part of a conscious effort to keep the footprint as small as possible.

“We don’t grow,” says Deborah. “We are smaller than we were, by design.”

Deborah is on the property three days a week and still holds weekly question and answer sessions with her guests to a always packed house, often answering questions about how she managed to live such a long and healthy life. People want to know what kind of water she drinks (a question that makes her laugh) and what her skin care routine is, to which she responds, “Soap and water.” as she says Fortune, “Those are not my occupations. The fact that I don’t worry is more important than the water. “I’ve really accepted what I can do and what I can’t do.”

But really: what is your secret?

His healthy lifestyle, which includes never having eaten red meat and continuing to walk a mile a day even after breaking his hip twice (he now uses a walker with wheels), has undoubtedly been a contributing factor to his longevity. But Deborah knows that she is not everything: her father lived to be 81, but her mother died of cancer when she was 60. Edmond died at age 70 (after separating), albeit due to his refusal to undergo surgery for an umbilical hernia. “He died of a strangulated hernia as soon as he arrived at the hospital,” she says. He has outlived her brother. And then came the biggest loss of her life: the death of her son (which she refuses to go into detail about).

But when it comes to having outlived so many people, Deborah says, “I don’t think about that. “Just accept.”

He usually has much younger friends, which helps. “I’ve always had younger friends, because of the conversation, the theater, the plays we go to see, the activities we do, you know? They are about 40 years old,” she says. “It’s fun.”

Her advice for those seeking longevity is to keep the body and mind active and read a lot, as she does, privileging the Japanese mysteries of the 9th century. “I like Buddhism,” she says. “I call myself a Jewish Zen Buddhist.”

But an active mind, for Deborah, does not include reflection.

“The thing is, I don’t allow negative thoughts. We are in control. And we can say, ‘I don’t want to go there.’ You just don’t go. Not me,” she says. “I mean, the world is a terrible place and terrible things happen all the time… But I’m trying to help as many people as possible live healthier lives.”

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