Controversial Spa Lady Proves a Fit Choice as Head of Federal Agency

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Times Staff Writer

After 24 years of catering to the whims of the overweight rich, Deborah Szekely wanted something more.

Sure, she founded the Golden Door, the opulent, Japanese-style spa in Escondido where women plunk down $3,000 a week to have their bodies massaged, thinned and fussed over.

Yes, Szekely was on so many boards, volunteered for so many civic projects and won so many citizen awards that you need two weeks of workouts at the Door before you can lift her bio sheet.


So why the yearning for something else?

“It all started when I was looking forward to my 60th birthday, and you realize you have every bit as much energy as you did at 30 or 40,” said Szekely (pronounced ZAY-kay), now 63. “You don’t feel like repeating yourself on and on. You have an opportunity for a whole new life.”

And that is precisely what Szekely has, a life style she calls “a fantasy” as the controversial president of the Inter-American Foundation (IAF), a small federal agency that administers grants directly to poor people throughout Latin America, without political government interference from either side.

Tiny but Treasured

Because the 15-year-old agency has not involved itself in foreign policy considerations but instead works directly with poor people’s groups, it is considered a tiny but treasured oasis in the desert of foreign aid, where, all too often, grants intended to help poor people never reach them.

Szekely’s appointment--after the ousting of the highly respected previous president, Peter Bell--brought howls from many observers--the spa lady, administering grants to Latin America? Is this a “Saturday Night Live” skit, or what?

“I had been in fitness forever, and I decided I wanted to do something totally different to challenge my mind, challenge my spirit,” Szekely said.

Supporters of the IAF viewed Bell’s ousting and replacement by Szekely as the key steps in a move by the Reagan Administration to politicize the agency. Surely, they argued, the spa lady would be just a tool for the right-wing faction on the board, which seeks to change the IAF.


“She’s not the kind of person you need in a sensitive job like that,” a Foreign Affairs Committee member, Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), had fumed in the summer of 1984 when word got out that Szekely was pursuing the job.

And, also at that time: “She may be the least qualified person in America for the job,” said Steve Hellinger, co-director of the Development Group for Alternative Policies, a nonprofit aid and

development organization that works with some of the same groups funded by IAF.

Now, after 17 months at the helm of IAF, Szekely draws praise from Garcia and Hellinger. Instead of politicizing the agency, Szekely is fighting fiercely for its continued independence, a surprise move that turned a couple of conservative board members against her and resulted in an effort by them to have her fired.

The effort did not succeed. And although some observers continue to criticize Szekely’s administrative abilities--saying she bombards the staff with paper work and off-the-wall ideas--she earns high marks for battling for the agency’s political independence.

Despite her lack of Latin American expertise and her administrative shortcomings, Szekely “will go down in history as the person who saved IAF if she can hold off the board,” a Latin American expert said.

Garcia, the congressman who had questioned her sensitivity, now says, “On the contrary, she and I have met on more than one occasion, and I have found her to be extremely sensitive and extremely cooperative. She’s come in and she’s tried, and that’s all you can really ask.”


Hellinger still believes Szekely is not eminently qualified but has been pleasantly surprised that she has not allowed herself to be used by conservative board members to alter the agency’s philosophy.

‘Feel It’s Unfortunate’

“I still feel it’s unfortunate that someone without a background or understanding of the field of development was chosen for the job,” said Hellinger. “But the foundation continues to do well primarily because the work is not generated from the top of the organization but rather from the bottom, where the field staff receives proposals from poor people’s organizations.

“On the other hand she has done an outstanding job of maintaining the independence and integrity of the institution in the face of attempts by the Administration to politicize the job.”

The move to oust Szekely had been led by board chairman Victor Blanco, a conservative Cuban-American businessman from Los Angeles, who had complained that the IAF was funding too many left-leaning projects and employed too many liberals.

“I was amazed,” Szekely said of the attempt.

But since Szekely survived Blanco’s attempt to vote her out of her office, Blanco “has gone out of his way to be helpful,” Szekely said. “And from a nice, handsome, tall, Cuban gentleman, that’s something.”

Even Szekely admits that she was not well versed in the field of development, or in Latin American affairs.


“I don’t know all of Latin America or the Caribbean, even now,” Szekely said. The qualifications she brought to the job were simple.

“I bring in a different set of skills,” Szekely said. “Enormous enthusiasm, an entrepreneurial personality, management skills, people skills.”

Must Go Back

To understand how Szekely got where she is, one must go back to the very beginning, to a childhood that spanned both financial comfort and hardship, and several countries.

Before she would talk about all that, or about anything, Szekely insisted on taking a questioner on a tour of the Rosslyn, Va.-based IAF offices where she works, overseeing 67 employees and, in 1985, $24.7 million in grants. During the tour, she introduced many staffers who had come in to work on a federal holiday, just as she had. There was no overtime pay.

Much of one floor was in a shambles, in the midst of remodeling.

“A shower stall will be installed in here,” she said, “for after the aerobic classes.” Szekely moved a little gingerly on this day, having pulled a back muscle reaching for a room service tray on a business trip to New York.

Snow began to fall outside the two walls of windows in Szekely’s office, a colorful collage of plants and Latin American artifacts. Her home in posh Georgetown, by contrast, is full of Japanese art.


Szekely’s manner was friendly, cheerful and self-confident. Her appearance was not that of the skeletal health food and exercise enthusiast, as one might have expected. Though Szekely does start each work day with a 6:30 aerobics class called Power Play, she has retained her plumpish figure, and her graying hair is left uncolored. She tried to go through a Golden Door week of primping and dieting once 10 years ago but didn’t stay the full seven days.

In addition to her other activities, Szekely has written two books, the “Golden Door Cookbook” and “Secrets of the Golden Door,” in which she also talks about her parents and her early life. Her father was a tailor in Brooklyn, where she was born Deborah Shainman. Shainman’s mother was a nurse and vice president of the New York Vegetarian Society, and fed her family nothing but raw fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Market Crash

When the stock market crashed, not only did Shainman’s father lose all his money, but the fruits and nuts they depended on for sustenance became unavailable.

“Faced with a choice between starvation or relinquishing their principles,” she wrote, “my parents decided to spend what money was left on steamship tickets. We sailed to Tahiti.”

There she lived from age 8 to 13, attending a convent school while her father sold coconuts and her mother delivered babies. It was there that the family met Prof. Edmond Szekely, who studied the living habits of ancient civilizations. Shainman would marry him a few years later at age 17.

Between Tahiti and the marriage, the family spent some time in Mexico, where Szekely said that at her school, “we sat on straw mats on the floor and used a half hollowed-out log for a desk.” She said she also did some work with the poor at that time.


Her marriage to Edmond Szekely was in 1939, and a year later the Szekelys opened their first health spa, Rancho La Puerta (Ranch of the Door), in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. It began as a $17.50-a-week, bring-your-own-tent operation and still thrives today, giving the likes of William Buckley and Milton Friedman a chance to climb mountains and bathe in natural mineral pools.

The Szekelys had two children: Livia, now 29, and Alexandre, now 27.

To celebrate the Szekelys’ 20th wedding anniversary (a year early), Deborah Szekely founded the Golden Door in 1958, making it her special project.

After 30 years of marriage, they divorced.

She was married again in 1972 to psychoanalyst Vincent Mazzanti, and they divorced six years later.

‘The Men’s Idea’

“Both times it was the men’s idea, not mine” to get divorced, said Szekely, who went back to her first married name. “(Mazzanti) said, ‘You’re never going to retire.’ ”

She speculates that it was her unceasing work on the Golden Door and other projects--everything from political campaigns to art councils--that drove them away.

“I’m a typical entrepreneur personality,” she said. “I have high energy and long working hours. I’m creative, dedicated and perseverant. But entrepreneurs do work long hours.”

By this time both spas were always full and providing her a comfortable living.

“They’re wonderful,” she said. “But they’re not an exciting challenge.”

So she turned over complete managerial duties of the spas to her son, Alexandre, and shortly after her 60th birthday she ran for Congress in 1982 out of her San Diego home. She was, as she said, “a mix,” a longtime Republican fund-raiser who still supported the equal rights amendment and was pro-choice on abortion--causes the new conservatism had labeled poison.


Szekely was defeated, but she moved to Washington anyway, where she proposed and funded a how-to guide for new members of Congress. After that she got a job at the U.S. Information Agency under her good friend, director Charles Wick, all the while thinking, “I want my own shop.”

The opportunity arose when she read in the newspaper of the firing of Bell, and she stopped by the IAF offices to pick up some information on the agency. When asked what she wanted it for, she said she was going to be the new president.

“It was simple, spontaneous action,” she said. “I really am the right person at the right time.

‘Had No Idea’

“I had no idea our country did something so wonderful.”

Szekely was quite aware of the irony of having a woman who ran a $3,000-a-week spa move to Washington to run an agency that helps the poor.

“I wasn’t born rich,” she said. “When you look at the statistics of families who are rich, they are more concerned about the poor than others are. Like the Kennedys. There is an awareness of how important it is that others have it, too.

“I had do doubt I could do this job. I was sure I could do it better than most people. I’d like to do a book on the age of confidence. At my age, you know what you can do.”


When Szekely first came to Washington she lived in the smallest house in Georgetown, which was 9 1/2 feet wide, until she could see if she liked Washington life. She did, and now she lives in a considerably larger, lavishly furnished Georgetown house, where, at a recent, last-minute luncheon, guests included Chief of Protocol Selwa (Lucky) Roosevelt, Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) and other town notables.

Sometimes she can’t believe the change in her life style, the fact that she doesn’t have a car but hails taxis and often walks to work across the Key Bridge over the Potomac. She has visited eight Latin American countries, bumping around in small planes and jeeps, and will spend three weeks in Peru and Chile this month. For the first time in 15 years, she said, she has her own office. She brings home bundles of reading material and a yearly salary in excess of $70,000.

“I have never lived alone. This is like a fantasy,” Szekely said. “I walk to work across the bridge and it’s another person. This is so different from anything I’ve ever done.”

She still gets home to San Diego quite often and talks to her son on the phone every week about the Golden Door and Rancho La Puerta, although Szekely insists she is not involved in running the places any more.

Szekely spends spare time in Washington going to dinners, concerts, plays and movies with women friends. While she occasionally is escorted somewhere, she does not really date and doesn’t particularly want to.

“I decided some time ago that I’m much more interested in having a job than a marriage,” she said. “I didn’t come here for that. I was very committed in both my marriages and I think that was enough.”


At this point Szekely sounds quite uncertain about how long she will remain at the IAF.

“At first I thought two years, but now I don’t know,” she said.

Perhaps it is telling that she already is planning her next project, and the one after that.

“I’m busy lining it up. It has to do with the Quincentennial of the Western Hemisphere,” she said to someone who apparently responded with a blank look.

“In 1992. You know--Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492?

“I’m frustrated that the focus of the Quincentennial is Spain and Italy. It’s important that we in the U.S. begin to understand and know Latin America.

‘More Important Goal’

“It’s terribly important there be a film series dealing with the people, culture and industry of Latin America.”

Szekely would like this to be shown on public television and in schools. And then it would all lead to what she calls the “more important goal.

“There is no major museum of the Americas here. We have 17 million tourists a year and there should be a museum of the Americas.


“I don’t want to run it. I’d like to help it happen.

“I don’t need to run things. We’re talking about vision, to share a vision.”