Slimming in Arizona with the very rich

Mirror, mirror in the Garden of Arden: please don't let my arteries harden

SONDRA GOTLIEB October 1 1974

Slimming in Arizona with the very rich

Mirror, mirror in the Garden of Arden: please don't let my arteries harden

SONDRA GOTLIEB October 1 1974

Slimming in Arizona with the very rich

Mirror, mirror in the Garden of Arden: please don't let my arteries harden


Beside the muddy Rhone I have dined on baked breasts of little birds, stuffed with green peppercorns and dripping sweet butter. In Montreal I drank from jeroboams of Moet & Chandon, candlelight suppers blurred in memory by the oversized bottles of voluptuous champagne. In Toronto I reached the exquisite extreme of passion, debauching myself with a quart of rhubarb ice cream, homemade with pure cream and fresh pink stalks.

But all sensualists must someday pay the piper. Casanova spent his last years syphilitic and lonely in an Austrian castle. Oscar Wilde was arrested in a middle-class hotel for “committing indecent acts.” My own retribution was fat. It crept around my waistline, swelled my hips and weighed down my upper arms. In two years I put on 12 pounds. And if ever I was to again venture without guilt or shame into new sensations like deep-fried zucchini flowers and Lombardian glazed grouse, I would have to lose it fast, for I have always been incapable of self-discipline. Abstinence and austerity are words I abhor. The only way I would ever discard those 12 pounds would be in an all-out campaign, a quick and ruthless battle away from the familiar haunts of temptation: the restaurant, the kitchen, the dinner party. Others would have to turn the diet screws for me. I needed a fat farm.

Fat farms, health spas, slim and trim resorts, whatever, have always been popular in Europe. The rhythm of 50 weeks gorging and two weeks starving is an integral part of the leisure hours of the bourgeoisie. In North America, where the custom is less prevalent, the most famous fat farm of all was the brain child of a Canadian born in Woodbridge, Ontario — Elizabeth Arden. She left Toronto in her late twenties, a relative failure after a series of mediocre secretarial jobs. But she had an uncommon talent for concocting face creams, and this she exploited and promoted in New York, where she made millions. She later devised a scheme to attract rich and socially prominent

women who had put on unfashionable pounds, and in 1947 Elizabeth Arden opened the Phoenix, Arizona, branch of Maine Chance. As a fat farm it’s expensive — $1,000 a week, gratuities and airfare not included — but it offered everything I needed. Gaining weight is my occupational hazard, and I chose Maine Chance as my workmen’s compensation.

Maine Chance is also known — but definitely not advertised — as a dehydration farm, since no alcohol is served on the premises. Famous ladies go there for various reasons. Mamie Eisenhower, Beatrice Lillie, Alice Faye and Joan Kennedy have all undergone Maine Chance’s 900-calorie-a-day diet and exercised the Arden way — knee flexing, hip rolls, stomach tucks, even the basic movements for the belly dance. But though diet and exercise are essential aspects of Maine Chance, it calls itself a beauty resort rather than a health spa. The brochures spoke of pedicures and wax baths, and included in the prospectus was a reprint from Harper’s Bazaar, which gushed about having the time to “plan next year’s flower border, on graph paper, at last.” They promised, among other things, breakfast in bed (“bring your bed jacket”) with fresh flowers on the tray — and only a grapefruit to eat. To a self-indulgent mesomorph like myself, it was irresistible.

Phoenix may be just a series of shopping malls connected by eight-lane highways, but Maine Chance — only a few minutes away from Barry Goldwater’s department store — is 105 acres of paradise. Bougainvillea vine and sweet-scented jasmine tumble over the small guest cottages, carefully landscaped between the rose beds, cactus gardens and citrus groves. Cooing doves, tame goldfinch and cottontail rabbits share the same air as the 30 or 40 women who have come to reduce and rejuvenate. There is even a manicured putting green that no one uses. And sprinklers are forever watering the sweet pea trellises to protect against the hot sun.

The service at Maine Chance must be a bit like sailing first class on the Queen

Mary in the 1930s; the ratio of staff to guests is more than two to one. Kindly women in white introduce themselves with that forgotten phrase, “I’m your maid,” and plump up the three pillows on the bed. (Any Sybarite knows the three pillows are essential for breakfasting in bed.) My room was large and pink — Miss Arden’s favorite color — and the bed had a lace coverlet while the bath mat and towels were fluffy with embossed roses. There were fresh flowers and free Arden products everywhere, and as someone who uses Woolworths’ sale-priced lanolin as the ultimate beauty aid I reacted to the moisturizing, velvetizing and deodorizing creams like a primitive presented with his first case of Chivas Regal. During my stay, I was constantly greased, from heel to hair.

The first and most persistent bit of unpleasantness at Maine Chance was not the meagreness of the food but an odd attempt at democracy: a blue bathing suit of jerseylike material lacking any inner support or elasticity. All the Maine Chance clients must wear this sad outfit — called “The Great Leveler” by the staff — at all times during the day. Everything on your body that hangs and flabs is given free sway. If your stomach protrudes, it makes you look only a contraction away from the delivery room. If you have breasts, they appear around the waist, like unexpected tumors; and if you are not well endowed, you concave like a question mark. Maine Chance’s theory is that everyone looks horrible, so no one minds.

But this is hardly so. There were some women — unaffectionately called “Skinnies” — who seemed to be in the final stage of training for the Miss Universe contest. They were young and slender, and the democratic suit only enhanced their sleekness. One of them, Mrs. Beaumont B. Bianchi, was subsequently photographed by the snobby Town & Country magazine as one of Los Angeles’ most beautiful women. An occasional model and the wife of a stockbroker, she was blond, tanned and like a young Grace Kelly. We fleshies listened in fas-

The biggest health problem at Maine Chance is constipation, and we were all lectured about flushing out the system

cination one day as she remarked, looking right through the 180-pounders: “You can’t imagine what a hunger I can get for chocolate almond clusters.”

The Skinnies were on the same 900calorie-a-day diet and took all the same exercises as the 180-pounders and middleweights. And this created a terrible problem for the rest of us. We were supposed to line up, two rows of three, in front of a large mirror while we exercised. But instead of concentrating on our scissor kicks we were hypnotized by the contrast between our wobbling thighs and the supple limbs of the Skinnies. No one wanted the exercise mat next to one, so around each beauty there was always a conspicuous vacuum.

Not all the Skinnies were young. Their bodies passed for 25 but their faces showed 40. Maine Chance doesn’t do face-lifts. A few of the Skinnies had arrived from Mexico where they had been tagging along with their husbands to attend a Young Presidents meeting. (The Young Presidents is a club of supersuccessful businessmen who meet in Paris, Rome or Acapulco, any nice place, to discuss such problems as inflation and other important subjects.) Mrs. L., a Young President’s wife — very slender — was staying at Maine Chance for two weeks. She wanted to take off the unnoticeable seven pounds she had put on since her last sojourn at the fat farm. When I expressed admiration over her pre-Maine Chance figure, she told me her routine: when she’s not traveling with her husband she goes at least one afternoon a week to Elizabeth Arden in

New York for exercises and beauty treatments. And every morning at her Staten Island home, she exercises to recordings of her husband’s voice announcing each new exercise and counting out the motions in time to a metronome. It had taken the loving Young President many hours to tape the 40minute session, using a Maine Chance exercise sheet as a guide. She raked her eyes over my body. “With all that pudge around your waist, you ought to get your husband to do the same thing.”

It’s wise to rent a sun lamp or go south to get tanned before coming to Maine Chance. Don’t arrive slug white, as I did. Not only is it unsightly, it tells the rest of the company a lot about your financial status. Many of them use the fat farm as a rest and recovery haven between skiing at Aspen and sunning in Acapulco. To them, Maine Chance is not a substitute for a week in the Caribbean, it is a preor post-vacation habit. I was immediately categorized as a working girl who blew her single thousand on losing weight instead of going on a Sun and Fun package tour in the Bahamas, and I lost status again simply because it was my first time at Maine Chance. Even though you may be untanned and chubby, you gain considerable points if you can yell at your old pal the massage lady, “Got myself all beefed up on the safari, Miss Lois. You'd better slap me back into shape.” You win another Brownie point if your children go to boarding school. I heard one lady say with classic inverted snobbery, “My son the idiot came sixty-third out of 64 at

Hotchkiss,” but no one ever bragged about an offspring coming first at the local high school.

The snobbery was immediately evident upon my arrival. I drove to Maine Chance (they pick us up at the airport) with Mrs. X who comes twice a year for three-week stints. She was tall and slim, in her late forties and a bit edgy. When she pointed out her factory in Phoenix and said that coming to Maine Chance was like coming home, I told her I was far from home, back in Ottawa. “We have a factory there, too,” she said.

Some of the other old girls at Maine Chance were not exactly walking advertisements for a beauty and diet spa. (I use the term “old girl” advisedly, because Maine Chance reminded me of an exclusive girls’ school — the new girls, timid, the intensely loyal old girls, and the envied prefects, the Skinnies.) Few of the women at Maine Chance were seriously overweight, but a good many needed more than a little redistribution of flesh. Miss Joan Elmsley, the director — perhaps I should say headmistress — of Maine Chance, said that she considered the women who come now sylphlike in comparison with clients of 25 years ago. Those ladies, she said nostalgically, were the real scale breakers.

The biggest health problem at Maine Chance is constipation. The nurse is well supplied with laxatives and Mrs. Jay, a slim, grey-haired woman who for some reason wears white gloves with her pantsuit and looks after the welfare of the guests, warned each of us about possible discomfort. We listened. Constipation increases weight so we were all concerned about flushing out the system.

Despite the 900-calorie diet, and despite also the two-and-one-half hours of exercises a day, cheating is possible. No one is forced to do anything, and if you want to sneak in cream puffs (again just like a girls’ school) or a bottle of whiskey, Phoenix is only a five-minute cab drive away. Shopping sorties to I. Magnin’s and Saks were most popular. Although I had no desire to sneak food or drink — too worried about losing $1,000 worth of fat — I’m sure some women had a bottle or two hidden under the bed, especially those who spent every evening in their rooms, never appearing in the dining room with the others. The nights certainly get rather tedious at Maine Chance, even for a week, and I suppose booze helps you forget that your husband would rather pay for three weeks at Maine Chance than put up with your company at home.

For me, the evenings were the worst

When in doubt, you could wear Pucci

time. Before dinner the women gathered in the main lodge for “cocktails” — watercress and pineapple juice and other similar abominations. And nearly all the women put on a different long dress, with all the fixings, each night. As we sipped juice that looked like the bottom of a swamp, we eyed and we compared. It took considerable courage for me to appear three nights running in my brown caftan printed with little white elephants. One lady asked me, tactfully, if I was a Republican. I am not a strongminded person and believe utterly in the motto, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” If I were researching a story about a commune and macrobiotic diets, my blue jeans would have to be the oldest, the most faded. At Maine Chance 1 pined for silk chiffon that could flutter and float in the.faces of the tanned Skinnies. And I longed for at least one Pucci dress with its distinctive geometric patterns of color, its austere cut immediately recognizable to those who are accustomed to spending $300 plus on a “little dress.” Mrs. Z., dark and sleek in hers, told me that she always has two in her wardrobe. “When in doubt, I wear Pucci, it goes everywhere.”

At dinner, we would shuffle around, trying to find someone congenial to sit with, without being obviously schoolgirlish. But by the third night we had unconsciously seated ourselves in three categories; the Skinnies, old girls and new girls. The Skinnies sat together from the start. We fleshies were mortified when they’d leave half of their lamb chop, and even their conversation was narrow. Blond goddess, Mrs. B.B.B., to brunette beauty queen: “Your hips are really smaller than mine, around the edges.” Brunette beauty queen to B.B.B.: “Oh, no. Mine are mountains compared to yours.” Despite our pudgy presence, they were convinced only their bottoms blighted the landscape.

The second category were the old girls who had been coming to Maine Chance for “I hate to tell you how long.” They usually kept to themselves and talked of buying horse racing stables, selling duck marshes, and fishing in the Norwegian fjords. When I sat near them, they would patronizingly ask me to spell my name. I didn’t mind once, but when one lady asked me three times in three days I learned to keep away.

Most of the time I sat with the third group, the new girls. We were intimidated by both the Skinnies and the old girls. Over the broiled chicken quarter we could at least discuss quietly our own obsessions: recipes and restaurants. At

Flies in paradise always settle on me

least in this group, it was clear why we were starving at a fat farm.

After dinner, there was not much to do, except read, play bridge or retire to your room and brood about your weight. The most exciting evening was Friday, Bingo Night, and everyone, even the recluses, showed up bedecked and bejeweled to play. The atmosphere was as tense as any church hall in Wawanesa, and, to everyone’s dismay, one super rich lady who had just bought herself a Pueblo Indian necklace for $500 (as reward for losing three pounds in three days) kept winning the prizes. One loser who had hours earlier been talking about the trials of building a proper indoor swimming pool, said with chagrin: “Them that has, gets.”

Maine Chance was everything the prospectus promised. I was truly pampered. Twenty-five years ago, Elizabeth Arden — not one of our puritanical Canadians — personally supervised every detail at Maine Chance, from the lace coverlets to the quality of the cooking. (Even though the portions are miniscule, the broccoli is never mushy.) Although Elizabeth Arden is dead, the staff still refer to her as “Miss Arden” and they stick to her canons. We were treated like spoiled children. They are incredibly careful about getting names right and remembering the old guests. The steam cabinet lady says: “You rub your little front with this soft towel, and I’ll rub your little back.” Once the masseuse yawned in my presence, and apologized over and over again as if she’d just broken something I’d lent her. When a horsefly stung my neck the bite was clucked over by the masseuse and the nurse during my entire stay.

And yet. despite this coddling, 1 found myself sulking. Pettiness soon poisoned my disposition. 1 ran out of the free milk bubble bath, and it wasn't replaced. Three days running I couldn’t put my backside against the strongest jet in the whirlpool bath — one of the old girls always hogged it. On Wednesday and Thursday the maid dawdled bringing in my breakfast. Occasionally, my vase of fresh flowers drooped.

However, my sourness was atypical. Most of the women, even the ones who barely lost weight, vowed to return. I lost five pounds doorstep to doorstep, inches from my waist, arms and hips. My sore back, instead of worsening, improved. I should be grateful, but I’d never return. I always feel that the single fly in paradise settles on me. I was bored silly. Besides, in three months time I’ll have put that five pounds right back.^h