GIRL BEHIND A GOLDEN DOOR

A Sports Illustrated writer, hoping fitness can be bought with money, goes through the gilded and glorious portal at right that gives its name to an esteemed California beauty resort. Inside for a week, she learns how those who have a few pounds and several hundred dollars to spare get themselves toned up and slimmed down
November 02, 1964

The newest and yet the oldest and forever one of the most expensive roads to fitness is the beauty resort, an establishment devoted to the principle that ladies are supposed to be pampered into being lovely. One envisions the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra going to them to be cajoled into their exquisite shapes, and though these institutions may have fallen out of vogue for an occasional Victorian century, they are back again and becoming increasingly fashionable.

The idea of such places has a great fascination for people. It seems to connote almost the last degree of luxuriousness. They are expensive, to be sure, $500 to $800 a week, but so are a lot of other things that do not have at all the same aura about them. Tell people you are going to fly to Madrid for the weekend and they will be polite, but tell them you are going to Elizabeth Arden's Maine Chance or to The Golden Door and they are fascinated. Perhaps it is because a beauty resort seems to offer for money what one thinks cannot be bought—health and fitness and improved looks. There is something wicked about it, buying with money what should be got by virtue—by years of eating carrots instead of pate and drinking buttermilk instead of bourbon, and by doing deep knee bends.

Whatever the explanation, I was lucky enough this summer to be in sufficiently bad shape to be dispatched to investigate The Golden Door, which once was an uneventful Escondido, Calif. motel and is now one of the country's most famous beauty resorts. The 5 feet 2 and 116 pounds of me was overweight, underexercised, peculiarly nourished and tense in the New York fashion—in a word, perfect—and I was sent off for a week at The Golden Door to see what they could do with me. A report follows—in fact, thinking back to the mechanical reducing machinery, I might say that a blow-by-blow report follows—on how to get fit by using money.

Monday

They laughed when I said I didn't want my breakfast in bed because of crumbs, and this morning I saw what they meant. Relatively few crumbs are involved in coffee with skim milk and half a grapefruit. Maids serve your breakfast in your room, in bed or out, or if you prefer will carry it to the side of the pool, which is accommodating and pleasant, but it's still coffee and skim milk and half a grapefruit.

It has been quite a day. I should have known that a place supposed to produce a new me couldn't do it alone. Alone, that is to say, with just a staff of 50. I am going to have to help. "A masseuse does not a thin me make, nor creams a brand-new skin." I hum to myself—a little something I composed during spot reducing. Spot reducing is a period of special exercises for the bits of you that are most particularly, hideously fat.

Life at what the brochures call "this small, elegant, exquisite beauty spa" in some respects resembles nothing so much as life as I recall having observed it in Greenwood Lake, N.Y. in 1957, when Sugar Ray was in training for the Basilio light. There are even medicine balls in the corner of the exercise lanai, and you should hear Ruth Roman, the actress, shouting, "Go, Mai Tai, go!" to a friend who has collapsed during push-ups and is lying on her stomach on a mat. Very Spartan. Ruth Roman has been here for over a month and it's all very well for her to go around taking deep breaths and saying aloud, "I'm much younger today." Mai Tai Sing and I are too new to be younger, we just hurt all over.

Anne-Marie Bennstrom, known as Dr. B., is the executive director of The Golden Door and the architect of our anguish. She is a 35-year-old blonde Swede of immense and communicable vitality who eats mostly fresh fruit and can wear tiny jersey shorts. She commands instant hero, or heroine, worship, which she exploits by bullying us all into following her through a series of fierce—in fact, maybe impossible—exercises, while she sings something like Wagon Train in a husky, carrying voice and we pant. When Dr. B. is too busy to do this to us herself there are assistants, Helene and Lisa, blonde young things of alarming vigor and unlimited flexibility.

The extent of my ambition on this first day has been a determination not to die right in front of everybody, and I have succeeded, if only just barely. Dr. B. patted me on the shoulder and said that I would feel better on Wednesday, and apart from an irritating tendency to hit myself in the ankles with my Indian clubs I think I am going to be all right. For one thing, I'm pleased to find that 400 calories a day apparently do sustain life, unless I am still continued being nourished by the last lunch I had before I got here, which could be, as it consisted principally of mayonnaise and gin.

Thirst is worse than hunger. The rationing of liquid is more excruciating than the cutting off of food. We are allowed four small glasses of liquid a day plus coffee at breakfast and herb tea before bed, and we are on our honor not to go sneaking drinks of water in our rooms. Famished as I was at dinner I couldn't force all of my lamb chop down my sandy throat. It is permitted to chew on an ice cube or on a slice of lemon, and during the heat of the day many of the ladies can be caught surreptitiously allowing their ice cubes to melt and squeezing a slice of lemon into the water, achieving one swallow of bitter lemonade. I consider this to be cheating and do not intend to stoop to it, but it is instructive to ponder the relative nature of pleasure. None of us would have fallen upon even ice-cream sodas the way we pounce on our four-ounce glasses of tomato bouillon.

As for pleasure, my nightdress has been laid out for me and my bed has been turned down. I have had my herb tea, have taken my bath with the Semiramis bath oil in it and have applied some Elixir d'Or—forthrightly subtitled wrinkle oil—on top of that, as instructed. It has been a long time since Eve put in a day like this, and I am not the woman I was at 13, so I am going to turn my negative ionizer on and my light off and go to sleep. (A negative ionizer, they told us at dinner—and I do not have the slightest intention of disputing what The Golden Door would teach me—emits negative ions, and negative ions are supposed to make us feel good. Ours not to reason why.)

Tuesday

They do do lots of nice things to us here, in between making us leap about with metal dumbbells and touch our toes with our elbows. We have massages every day and facials with creams that the beauticians tell us are made only with avocado and turtle oils, and manicures and pedicures. They rub our hands and feet with goo and then put mitts and boots on that warm up like heating pads, and my feet came out so soft that it hurts to walk around the swimming pool—which I guess is progress. However, I am not yet with the Herbal Wrap.

Dr. B. says, a little opaquely, of the herb wrap, "What is good for the gander is good for the geese, and what is good for the dead is good for the half alive.'" The dead in this appealing figure of speech are the mummified Egyptians, and the half alive, of course, are us. The best thing for the dead has often struck me as being burial, which I had not thought of as a treatment for the half alive, but never mind.

The herb wrap involves being enveloped, like the mummies, in a lot of spices and linen—hot, wet linen cloths, steaming and covered with herbs. Rubber sheets arc laid on a blanket, and on top of them goes the heavy wet linen, then a sprinkling of sage or rosemary or whatever. You lower your naked self in a gingerly fashion and stretch out flat, and then Doris, who is wearing what appear to be asbestos gloves to handle what you have just stretched out naked upon, wraps you all up in the rosemary, hot linen, rubber sheets and blanket.

"Do you get claustrophobia?" Doris asked as she put me away for the first time, and even as I said, "No," claustrophobia swept over me in waves. Layers of hot, wet linen weigh a ton, and they cling. You can't move a finger. Doris put a cold cloth on my steamy brow, and I lay there and regarded the ceiling, my thoughts running mostly to grave-clothes, winding sheets, wet packs in asylums and the streets of Laredo, with that poor "cowboy wrapped in white linen—wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay." I wasn't cold as the clay, anyhow.

After about five minutes real panic set in, and I raised my head to make sure somebody was going to be around when I screamed. At the same moment Ann Becker, across the room, raised her head, and we peered at each other like two turtles on their backs. Mutually reassured by our mutual alarm, we refrained from going to pieces.

The herb wrap is grand for aching muscles and, Doris says, for purifying us generally (heavy smokers exude so much tobacco that the linen reeks of it), and since I certainly do ache and no doubt need purifying, I shall try to learn to love the herb wrap.

What else? The food here is beautifully cooked by a chef named Herman McCoy, known as Harmony, who can take all sorts of healthy things and make them palatable and create desserts "as good as if they were fattening," as one of us puts it. However, tomorrow is watermelon day, and we are going to be beyond the reach of all of Harmony's skill.

Harmony is 5 feet 9 and he weighs 268 pounds, but he seems happy in his roundness from which I feel I ought to conclude something.

Wednesday

The really exquisite thing about The Golden Door is the sweat suits. We wear pink sweat suits. Fresh ones materialize every day, and we just get up and put them on and walk outdoors. No girdles, garter belts, stockings, heels, hats, hooks, buttons, zippers, petticoats or makeup, and if we're not wearing our sweat suits we are wearing even less, our terry-cloth togas with nothing underneath. Bliss!

The prebreakfast walk at 7 o'clock is optional, and Monday and Tuesday I opted out, but this morning I woke up at 6:30. I stretched experimentally, and it hardly hurt at all, and I thought about the exercises to come and I didn't flinch, and my blood positively seemed to be circulating instead of lying like a lot of sludge down around my ankles. I leaped out of bed, washed my face with my Golden Door Soap Drops, put on my pink sweat suit and opened the door. It is very misty here at 6:45. I peered out into the gray, looking for a jolly group of morning hikers—there are 17 ladies here, and if I was up and game I assumed that certainly the other 16 would be. All I saw were two rabbits snuffling around in the gravel by my door. The white doves in their cage were cooing in a businesslike way, and I went over to watch them. Very pretty, except for their nasty, beady red eyes. They are kept to symbolize peace of mind, I understand, so everybody gets upset when a cat creeps in and eats one.

By the time I had extracted all the peace of mind I could from the doves I made out a figure in the mist. On the other side of the swimming pool was Mary Louise Cowling in her pink sweat suit, prowling through the petunias and brandishing her long cigarette holder. Mrs. Cowling is an imperturbable lady who says she loves to get up early in the morning, that she hates bed. "I'm so afraid I might miss something."

Since the other 15 ladies did not seem to share this fear and did not seem to hate their beds, we set off by ourselves for a walk in the little hills around The Golden Door. These hills are full of large round rocks that look like raisins in a pudding, or perhaps I am just hungry. But the country, despite looking like a pudding, is severe, dependent for much of its moisture on the mist that was finally beginning to rise.

"You're not taking enough deep breaths, I notice," Mrs. Cowling said, and by the end of the walk she had given me more good advice. For one thing, I can stop being afraid of airplanes. "That's a lot of romantic nonsense," Mrs. Cowling told me, "the idea that in a crash everybody is killed!" This is one way of looking at it, all right. In the future when my airplane is making those funny noises, I plan to tell myself firmly that my terror is a lot of romantic nonsense.

"I was in a plane crash when I was a girl," Mrs. Cowling went on. "I was on my way to Europe for the first time. We came down in a cornfield in Ohio, but I knew I wasn't going to die. I was going to Europe." Mrs. Cowling paused to examine a stalk of wild oats. "I went about Rome in a carriage with a Spaniard from the diplomatic corps," she reminisced. "It was lovely." It was so lovely that her tour, and the other young girls, went on without her, and she had to take a tinny single-engine plane across the mountains to Venice to catch up. "And in Venice I danced on the Lido with an Italian. We couldn't talk to each other, but we both knew the word for heart"—Mrs. Cowling enthusiastically indicated her heart with her cigarette holder—"and we danced together quite beautifully! They both wrote to me for about five years."

I was impressed. One thinks of Spaniards and Italians as romantic but inclined to be flighty; that they should have maintained a five-year correspondence seems powerful evidence for Mrs. Cowling's having been a most charming dancing partner which, as a matter of fact, I am certain she was.

"It must have been romantic," I ventured.

"Oh, it was. It was swell," Mrs. Cowling said happily.

When we got back to The Door I was black in the face from practicing my breathing, and it was time for breakfast. I noticed they had eliminated the skim milk for our coffee, the sly creatures. Today has been watermelon day, and for breakfast we had watermelon. Everybody was fairly cheerful about this. It was a novelty, and we would only have had that half a grapefruit anyway. By lunchtime, though, after exercise and gym and spot reducing and volleyball in the pool, we were hungrier. The luncheon table, with its double row of white plates holding two sculptured, but small, pieces of red watermelon, looked handsome, but not satisfying, and by dinnertime there was an air of ill temper, almost of rebellion, abroad. Candlelight shone upon the watermelon, but it didn't do any good. We were saved by Mrs. James Garner, the wife of the actor, who chose this moment to exclaim, looking across her plate of wet black seeds, "Aren't we lucky! Just think of all the people who would love to be in our places!" It was true, and besides, tomorrow will be high-protein day and we will have steak, a thought that cheered up everybody.

Lois Garner is slender as a child, and I don't know what she's doing on the crash diet anyway. But at The Golden Door you come to grips with what ails you, and if what ails most of us happens to be fat, still there are some who suffer from thinness, and they come to meals and try to force down a bit of mashed potato with butter, or pie. It is considered good for the stout to sit by the skinny, because, it is pointed out, there will be no guarantee when we are all back on the outside that persons dining with us will never order pie. Very valuable for the overweight, a short course in watching other people eat.

After dinner they generally show movies in the lounge, mediocre to bad movies. The library is full of good books that one has been meaning to read for years, like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Schopenhauer's Aphorisms, and in our rooms there are the Thousand Meditations, which are bits from the major religions and philosophies printed on rough, brown, spiritual-looking paper. But, stupefied with exercise and sun, I felt that I couldn't do justice to Gibbon or the Upanishads, and tonight I went to watch Return to Peyton Place.

We sprawled comfortably with our feet up and followed Carol Lynley and Tuesday Weld through a lot of stuff about rape, murder, infidelity, illegitimacy and young love—licit and illicit. And eating. The script of that movie must have been concocted with the Joy of Cooking open beside the typewriter. It wasn't fancy eating", as in Tom Jones, just plain, solid long-distance eating, with a lot of scenes thrown in of the meals being prepared before the scenes in which they were eaten. Coming as it did at the end of watermelon day, it got quite trying.

"What I want," a voice said pensively out of the darkness, "is smoked salmon on thin rye bread with butter, and capers, and a tunafish sandwich on white toast with mayonnaise." Which was bad enough but, worse, a rumor went around that high-protein day was not after all going to begin with an egg for breakfast. I'm sure it can't be good for us to go to bed in this nervous and overexcited condition.

Thursday

Improvement! Terrific! I have lost four pounds. I can do my deep breathing without feeling faint. I can get through the exercises and I don't crackle. My masseuse can massage me and her hands don't bounce off, the way they did Monday when I lay there rigid with tension, and the beauticians think they are winning the battle with my scalp. They were feeling doubtful about my scalp; that was tension, too. But all of us are loosening up. We're allowed to be, we're encouraged to be, we're succeeding in being, perfectly childish. I must say, it has been harder than I would have thought to be childish, I suppose because it was a long way back. But we made it, and are now capable of complete, happy, simple-minded absorption in our terrible games of volleyball and of lying in the sun without a thought cluttering up our minds. No need to sneer that our thoughts doubtless had been poor and silly ones; so much the better to be rid of them.

Apparently the men are better at this than the women. Men take over The Golden Door, beauty salons and all, for three weeks four times a year. Aldous Huxley came, and Bob Cummings, Jim Backus, Stanley Kramer, Johnny Weissmuller, Victor Buono and Sid Gillman. More than half of the men who have been here are repeaters.

Anyway it seems that they can settle down to being childish in a day and, the staff says, they adapt more gracefully to a schedule and a diet. Is this because men have been in the Army, I wonder, or arc they used to more regimentation in their work, or is it just because men are better-natured? It was the men who held initiation ceremonies to accept newcomers into what they call The Knights of the Golden Horde, and it was the men who broke into the staff refrigerator where the real food is kept, and a man who woke everybody up at 5 a.m. in the morning playing the march from The Bridge on the River Kwai over the loudspeaker system. A woman would have to stay on here several thousand dollars' worth before she achieved that state of mind. J. P. Heyes's husband, Douglas, a TV director and scriptwriter, has been here several times, and J. P. said that Dr. B. had even got Doug and Stanley Kramer discussing "What is God?," which went on for hours and is to me clear evidence of a youthful outlook. I mean it has been my experience that you have to be under 22 to stay the course on that subject.

"On the first day," J. P. says, "the men want to make sure there are enough telephone lines for all their important calls, and they say, 'Now, I can't fool around, I have to call New York.' The second day when the phone rings they're saying, 'My God, I can't answer that, I'm in the pool!' "

J. P. gave me all this information late in the afternoon while a group of us were taking the short walk, trailing after Helene, trim and respectable in white, the rest of us a mixed bag (why resist an accurate pun?). Peggy Barnard was wearing blue bedroom slippers. Kay Roberts wore sunglasses, a green celluloid eyeshade and a lot of zinc oxide and was wandering off the road to collect grasses and flowers to dry for arrangements back home in Texas. J. P. sported a yellow terry-cloth turban (I forgot to say that they put oil in our hair, and we retreat much of the time to terry-cloth turbans) and had her cigarettes pushed into a fold of her shirt, like an urchin, except that she was smoking them in a long rhinestone holder. "There's less traffic on this road, and you don't feel like such an ass," J. P. said cheerfully, and I thought that the point was probably well taken, though I felt basically too peaceful to care about it.

Tonight we had an immense, gooey thing for dessert, which Harmony made apparently out of artificial everything—artificial sweetening, artificial whipped cream, even something like an artificial Jell-O. It gave one the odd feeling that it was a culinary mirage. It sat there before our very eyes, green and quivery, but something about knowing it contained virtually no nourishment made it seem imaginary. Note: it is a blow to discover that real Jell-O has calories in it.

Friday

I haven't said anything about the yoga. Candy Dyer got out of the pool this afternoon saying, "I've got to go get me some of that peace of mind," by which she didn't mean the doves or the Thousand Meditations, she meant the yoga.

We are instructed in yoga by Victor Royal. Victor looks faintly mysterious and improbably fit, as becomes a practitioner of yoga, and his name was originally Tom but he had to change it to Victor "for spiritual reasons." He wears a single earring. Victor, neat in shorts and a fishnet top, faces us, lumpy in our sweat suits, and leads us in the simplest of yoga exercises. We curl and stretch and breathe and fold up and unfold. It is delicious. I suppose "delicious" is a rude word to apply to what could be considered games played with a spiritual discipline, but it is descriptive of the exhilaration and feeling of well-being that do result from the very simple exercises. We listen, docile and serious, to Victor telling us about scraping our tongues with our tongue-scrapers and what exercises to do for fits of bad temper, and for as long as two minutes at a time we contemplate life. Since in 45 minutes a day over a five-day period Victor probably does not count on nudging us much closer to Nirvana, I suspect his main concern is that none of us, in an access of zeal, is going to try to stand on her head and break her neck, or more exotically, as I heard him telling one of the ladies, unleash psychic forces for which we are not sufficiently advanced by practicing certain of the one-nostril breathing exercises. The lady to whom he spoke had spent, years in India. That isn't the kind of trouble the rest of us are capable of.

Only one more day! We're feeling wonderfully well. Kay and Mary Hall are negotiating with their husbands and with The Golden Door to stay another week, and I think they are right. Another week would consolidate the gains. I suspect I know what will happen to me—I will go home giddy with well-being and will rush around eating and talking and drinking water and gain back all that weight. "Easy go, easy come," I warn myself of my weight loss, and I don't know what could be more proof of euphoria than my calling it "easy go." I have worked like a dog.

Saturday

A solemn moment. They measure us. I have only lost the four pounds, but I am 8¼ inches smaller; an inch smaller here,½ inch smaller there. Kay said at lunch that she had told her husband over the phone that she had lost eight inches and he had said, "What!" dumfounded, thinking for a wild moment that she meant she was eight inches shorter.

They have washed all the oil out of our hair, styled it and set it, and manicured us for the last time, and imported a makeup specialist to show us how to gild the lilies we have become. It was great fun, like playing dress-up, when in the middle of the afternoon she did all those things to us that the fashion magazines always assume so casually that everyone does to herself; impressive things with foundation creams and eye liner and mascara. Many of the ladies here—wives of ranchers and lawyers and such—are no more in the habit of dealing with eye liner and mascara than I, and we sat hypnotized, staring into the mirror, as the blonde model put eye shadow on us. We emerged blinking into the sunlight, practically unrecognizable with our new faces and hairdos, and no doubt we were all very beautiful. But we seemed to be carrying our faces around with a careful self-consciousness, as if they were porcelain vases, and nobody dared to get into the swimming pool, and I suddenly realized that it was all over. It was back to the heels and the stockings again.

I looked at everyone, my doe-eyed self included, and I found that I thought, really, that I preferred us all in our pink suits with our hair scooped back and our faces scrubbed clean with our Golden Door Soap Drops. I'm thinner and healthier, and my skin is clear and it does quite glow, just as they said it would, and I have pink polish on my toenails. I am delighted with myself, and with The Golden Door. But when I looked around the table tonight and considered all of us, nicely dressed and handsomely coiffed and suitably made up, and thought about taking all that up again, in addition to the delight I felt a very real pang, a severe pang, at the loss of our pink sweat suits.

PHOTODr. B. sprinkles down clients in the "Sumerian baths," shallow pools that keep sun-bathers hall wet, hall dry on the theory they will absorb moisture like flowers in a vase. PHOTOUnder the serene gaze of a Gothic lady and busily attended by Doris Hague, guests lie like clams at a clambake, steaming in herbs, hot linen, rubber sheets and blankets. PHOTOInstructor Victor Royal demonstrates a yoga exercise called the lion. It does much for sore throats but little for the appearance. PHOTO

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