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.
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.