Valerie von Sobel—Communist era survivor, actress (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, 1962), philanthropist, artist, interior designer, style icon, and international bon vivant (not to mention straight-talker)—is one of L.A’s diva doyennes, a woman so fascinating and skilled in clever repartee that she’s become one of the city’s most in-demand dinner guests. Here, Valerie, who reports a curiosity about “everything from bugs to hairpins,” reveals the secrets to her piquant wit and offers her unvarnished take on the conversational style of a few celebrities.
What is the secret to great conversation?
I really try to invest myself in conversations and pull out the humanity of a person— humanity is at the very core of all of us. What is he or she afraid of? What is their expertise so I can learn something? If you can do that, conversations will become interesting, even if the person isn’t naturally a good conversationalist.
How do you begin a conversation with a dinner partner?
As soon as I sit down, I try to be open and draw them out. It’s important to know with whom you’re talking so you can adjust as needed. For example, if you’re sitting next to a doctor, you’re not going to talk about fashion. But you can ask all kinds of medical questions and allow the doctor to shine.
Valerie von Sobel and Tatiana von Furstenberg
Can you start by asking someone: “What do you do?” Or is that rude?
There are more interesting ways to go about it, and it’s not difficult. The goal is to ask something that will provoke them into revealing who they really are. The truth is, people are eager to talk about themselves, more so than they are to talk about you.
What do people generally ask you about at parties? What do you like to talk about?
I have a tiny bit of—not fame—but being known for many things. So I find that people either fawn over me, or they don’t know who the hell I am and, in that case, will just comment about something I’m wearing. I love discussing anything creative. Cutting-edge, hard-to-understand science—like hydronics and fire retardants—fascinates me as well.
You’re always witty and charming, but you seem to very quickly get into “deeper” content.
Yes, I do. I am now 76, and I don’t do small talk anymore. I like to go as deep as the ocean.
What do you do if you’re seated next to someone who just talks non-stop about himself or herself?
I try my best to listen and interact. If they are riveted by a particular subject, it’s best to just go there and make the best of it. I try to remind myself that if someone is very egocentric, it’s probably because they’ve been injured in some way or have low self-esteem.
How do you feel about people who move the place cards around at formal dinners?
I think it is impolite—but a damn good idea sometimes!
I can’t imagine this happening to you, but what do you do if those seated next to you don’t include you in conversation?
I don’t really mind being ignored. If that happens, I try to find someone nearby who is provocative so I can banter with them. I love to banter—it shows wit and it’s amusing.
Sarah Jane Adams and Valerie von Sobel via Ari Seth Cohen
Everyone wants to feel witty. What’s a good way to make people laugh?
If you have a humorous edge, sooner or later you’re going to say something that will be interpreted as funny. But if you do, and the person doesn’t pick up on it after you’ve said it two or three times, let it drop.
You’ve been seated next to some of the most famous people in the world. What is it like to converse with celebrities at that level?
Sometimes the most interesting people in the world can be the dullest dinner companions. A very famous designer whom I was honored to be seated next to at a dinner party—he has since departed the planet—was, no pun intended, deadly boring. There were no questions for me, no compliments, no interest in me knowing about his homes, no conversation about the aesthetics of his line. Maybe he was just minus a sense of humor. Or maybe he didn’t find me important enough to invest his energy in. That’s why it’s important to have confidence in yourself and go into every conversation believing that you are just as important as anyone else. There’s an energy and a psychology to achieving a good and balanced conversation, and you have to do your part.
I know that you’re not much of a drinker, so how do you deal with a dinner partner who gets tipsy?
Well, that depends upon the tipsy. Tipsy can be funny or it can be mean. Sometimes, a person can be more interesting when they’re tipsy than when they’re not. But if someone is falling-down drunk, I would move.
Has that ever happened to you?
Oh, yes! I was at a dinner the other night, and a young man—quite well known—was absolutely non compos mentis, with very bloodshot eyes. I just said, “I know who you are. You are SOOO interesting. It was nice to meet you, darling!” And that was that.
Your style of dress is very flamboyant. Do you dress that way to start conversations? What’s your style for dinner parties, and how do you think others should dress for dinner parties?
If I am the hostess, I like to wear something that shows that I care about the dinner party, but I also like to be comfortable. If I go to someone else’s party, I will dress to feel festive and to make it a celebration when I enter the room. I dress for myself. I don’t pay attention to dress codes, and I am more often overdressed than underdressed. As for advising others, I would say, don’t worry about being everybody’s cup of tea. Dress in whatever way works for you.
From your vast knowledge of California, New York, and Europe, what do truly great hosts have in common?
You can have all the elements of a great dinner party, like good service, wonderful food, and a rich table, but if your room is not feng shui—the lighting is too bright or too dim—you can kill the mood in an instant. The room must resonate and inspire conversation. It’s about the soul of the place, which is why I love the book, A Home for the Soul: A Guide for Dwelling with Spirit and Imagination.
And here are a few more story topics that we think you’ll enjoy:
Ten no-fail conversation tips
How to seat dinner guests
How to kick-start a party conversation
Ten luminaries reveal their go-to conversation starters
How to talk about politics at parties
Top and bottom photos: Ari Seth Cohen, author of Advanced Style