'Round Tables' inspire the fine art of conversation

"Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds, ideas," an anonymous sage once said. Pat Montandon is apt to combine all three types of minds andm conversations at one of her Round Table discussion- luncheons.

At least once a month for the last eight years this well- known San Francisco TV personality, socialite, party giver, author, and newspaper columnist has invited 10 guests from all walks of life to lunch in her dramatic 33rd-floor penthouse atop Russian Hill. Just for the sake of good conversation.

Invitations are specially engraved to give importance to the occasion and to let her guests know this is not just another social event. Few of the guests are Ms. Montandon's personal friends. Instead she gathers newsmakers, achievers , controversial characters, and many whose names will never make the news. Editors, ministers, actors, and activists -- she invites whomever she feels will add breadth and dimension.

Few unnecessary social amenties take time from the conversation at these mid-day gatherings. Entering the two-story, marble-floored apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows and a curving, unsupported stairway, guests are immediately seated at the huge travertime dining table. They introduce themselves and the conversational adventure starts.

No subject is taboo. The scope is unrestricted. Staying away from religion and politics in polite conversation doesn't apply here. Ms. Montandon enforces a small degree of etiquette by ringing a genteel bell if everyone starts talking at once. Otherwise there are no hard rules.

"Breaking the ice is never a problem," she claims. One of her guests, a clergyman, explains it this way: "Pat's manner gives you permission to be yourself."

As she chats with a visitor, the lush peach velvet upholstered chairs, oversized puffy sofas, and tapestried wall nearly absorb the sound of the hostess's mellifluous voice.

"It all started because I was lonely," admits Ms. Montandon, one of eight children in a preacher's family from Waurika, Okla. (pop. 2,000). "It wasn't lacking invitations, but I was hungry for the spiritual sustenance that comes from intelligent communication with other people. I knew there must be many others who felt the same way, and I wanted to bring them together.

"While we eat we get to know each other in a nonjudgmental atmosphere," she explains. "We explore and discuss topics that are spontaneous, never prearranged. They just evolve in a wide range, from violence to women's rights, from foreign affairs and racial problems to divorce." (Ms. Montandon has just undergone a trying divorce herself.) "The results are often a crystallization of views, therapeutic and satisfying," she says.

She adjusts her ruffled, magenta-and-blue Jean/Marc jumpsuit and continues. "These get-togethers have given more to me than anything in my life. Real friendships have developed with people from all over the country. It's been an opening of minds toward differing attitudes and ways of living. I've seen that we're not chained to the thoughts we've been raised with."

Invitations to the discussions in this spectacular setting, with its 345 -degree view of San Francisco Bay, are so coveted that Ms. Montandon was recently asked to donate one to a charity auction. It brought $1,700.

While Ms. Montandon now happens to have the financial wherewithal to hold these meetings in elegant style, she is quick to say that people don't have to have a lot of money -- or even a round table -- to start a Round Table. "My first table was an ordinary one with an extra large plywood circle on it, which I covered with a sheet," she recalls.

Her eagerness to share her experiences and to urge others to start similar groups has impelled her to write a book on the subject. "Recipes for Conversation," now receiving finishing touches before it goes to the publisher, expounds her rules for entertaining.

Among them: Never include married couples, because they inhibit each other. Keep lunch a simple one-dish meal. Vary guests as much as possible. And don't set time limits.

The book also includes some of Ms. Montandon's adventures in bringing people together in a Round Table luncheon.

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