How One Muse Fashioned Herself A Mountaintop Retreat

As the pandemic hit, actor and philanthropist Valerie von Sobel made for her Idyllwild home, and she still hasn’t left

Words by DAVID NASH
Photography by ELIOT LEE HAZEL
Fashion Direction by ALIONA KONONOVA

 

Sixty minutes outside of Palm Springs, situated on a healthy parcel of land in the San Jacinto Mountains town of Idyllwild — like a scene out of a Hans Christian Andersen story — sits a small chapel and a quaint country home known as Chalet Tournesol. And its main character, with all her eccentricities, fits right in.

 

A small chapel sits on the Idyllwild plot.

 

An artist, philanthropist, former interior designer and onetime actor — recognized these days for her dazzling red coiffure and thoroughly independent style — Valerie von Sobel admits to being more content surrounded by nature than anywhere else. “The interruption of a social life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and besides, I hate small talk,” she offers without hesitation in an accent that conjures images of Greta Garbo. “Here I have my library and my music — it’s entirely enriching, and I consider myself incredibly privileged. Other people should be so lucky.”

 

Valerie von Sobel happily tends to her property’s landscaping on a daily basis. ALIONA KONONOVA skirt and dress, SMITH & HAWKEN wellies and shears, and vintage hat.

 

“The interruption of a social life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and besides, I hate small talk”

Valerie von Sobel

 

Von Sobel acquired the picturesque property in 1995 — the same year she lost her son, husband and mother — and eventually took the existing A-frame down to its foundation to erect what would become her refuge from the heartbreak. As it turned out, the towering ponderosa pines, blooming manzanitas, burbling creeks and imposing granite formations of the high mountain valley made the perfect companions. “My bond has always been with nature, and I simply realized I wanted to be here,” she explains. “Fall is very pretty, but my favorite of the four seasons is winter — it’s truly why I’m here. I have proper snow and it’s absolutely breathtaking.”

 

From left: The living room of Chalet Tournesol. A rococo console sits in the entrance hall.

 

The “new” structure, a 19th-century barn she bought in New England and had trucked across the country in 1998, stands in stark contrast to the dramatic interior design of her Los Angeles pied-à-terre filled with European antiques and a remarkable collection of contemporary art. “Being here gives me a total feeling of freedom. I’ve spent the last year and a half here without going back to L.A. once — this is much more of a personal space, designed appropriately for the surroundings.” Named after her son Andre’s favorite flower (tournesol is French for “sunflower”), the house and nearby chapel are a thoughtfully considered homage to his memory. “Of course, everything he loved became sacred to me [after he succumbed to an inoperable brain tumor at age 19]. I have a photo of us in an Austrian chapel, so I had it copied — only the Alps are missing.”

 

Von Sobel, reimagined as a winged maiden, on the grounds of her Idyllwild retreat. ALIONA KONONOVA skirt, top, wings and hat. DIOR necklace.

 

“My favorite season is winter. I have proper snow and it’s breathtaking”

Valerie von Sobel

 

Never one for doing things by half measures, von Sobel fashions every other aspect of her life as well as she outfits her homes. “Clearly I’m not conservative at all when it comes to dressing either,” she laughs. “Wearing six designers at once — the outcomes of six sets of hands — is typical of how I dress. Even though Lagerfeld was a f—ing genius, I’d never wear [head-to-toe] Chanel.” While she often mixes haute couture from coveted designers like Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier with Target finds, it’s younger talent that she champions in her carefully curated looks, like the work of Aliona Kononova (who also styled von Sobel for this story). “I love supporting emerging designers like Aliona and Irina Dzhus. Every day there is a new talent born and a new vantage point of fashion.”

 

The entrance looks onto a pergola of wisteria.

 

In fact, the Hungarian-born import was once an emerging talent herself — in Hollywood. After she was discovered, her big break came in 1962’s Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, opposite Jimmy Stewart, Maureen O’Hara and Fabian. “It was a good time; except I was under contract to Jerry Wald at 20th Century Fox and — just as they’d done to Marilyn Monroe — he changed my name to Valerie Varda.” This revelation may come as a surprise to those who think they know her: “My given name is actually Zsuzsanna, but nobody knew how to pronounce it; feed it to a dog and it would die of word poisoning.” Although she worked in the industry for just a few more years, her husband liked the name, so she kept it. “The only sad part of that flash-in-the-pan career is that I never found out if I could actually act!”

 

From left: A bird cage is part of von Sobel’s remarkable collection of antiques and contemporary art. Wearing an ALIONA KONONOVA turban and a vintage Venetian diamond octopus bracelet, von Sobel unwinds with Lucy, her 20-year-old dachshund and constant companion.

 

“Even though Lagerfeld was a f—king genius, I’d never wear [head-to-toe] Chanel”

Valerie von Sobel

 

Since then she’s lived “seven lives,” and at 80 years old she now finds herself immersed in a busying routine, with days spent tending her expansive “all-white” garden filled with wisteria, crocuses, tulips and clematis, designed in the style of the Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, England (not to mention caring for her Japanese garden); reading (at least three books at once); doting on her 20-year-old dachshund, Lucy; and overseeing her foundation, Compassion Can’t Wait, which offers financial and emotional support to families of children with life-threatening illnesses. “When we lost our son, this work meant my emotional survival,” she says bluntly. “And it continues to provide a daily reality check into what it means to be helpless in the face of a child’s sudden terminal illness.”

 

From left: Von Sobel purchased the picturesque A-frame property in 1995. Von Sobel poised outside Chalet Tournesol — named in memory of her son, Andre — wearing a DZHUS top, CHANEL corset, ALIONA KONONOVA skirt and vintage boots. (The hat is a result of a weekend curling zip ties.) 

 

The way von Sobel readies herself each day is surprisingly uncomplicated, and is both her ultimate indulgence and best advice. “Ever since I was 15 years old, I’ve had breakfast in bed — I’d like to teach the whole world the benefit of it, because you anchor your day in luxury.”

Visit compassioncantwait.org to learn more about von Sobel’s charitable work.

 

The library of Chateau Tournesol.

 

 

Feature image: Von Sobel — wearing a vintage Korean priest’s hat and an ALIONA KONONOVA ensemble (complete with bird-feather brooches) — makes an entrance at the gate of her Japanese garden.

 

This story originally appeared in the Fashionable Living 2021 issue of C Magazine.

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