03/16/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
What makes a great party? The secret, says Sally Quinn, the celebrated Washington journalist and hostess, is not fanatical preparation but lively guests. "Martha Stewart and I are on different planets," she says. "She's about things—how to make the perfect tablecloth, the perfect apple pie. I can't do any of that."
What the 56-year-old Quinn can do is throw a good shindig, a knack she shares in her latest book, The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining (Simon & Schuster). Quinn's hospitality is renowned, from impromptu dinners with close friends to black-tie bashes like her recent New Year's Eve party, where Gen. Colin Powell, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, CNN's Larry King, Katharine Graham of The Washington Post, humorist Art Buchwald, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and 150 other notables dined on choucroute with champagne, pork and sausage, scalloped potatoes and chocolate truffles—all catered, of course. Quinn's recipe for excitement—or, at least, what passes for excitement—in Washington? Invite both parties, Republicans and Democrats, to the party. "My only agenda," she says, "is to have a good time."
Correspondent Margery Sellinger spoke with Quinn about the art of the party at the 14-room, 200-year-old Georgetown home where she lives with her husband, former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, 76, and their son Quinn, 15.
What's your entertaining philosophy?
Treat your guests the way you would like to be treated. The only reason to have a party is to have a good time. If you don't want to have a good time, have a meeting.
Who's on your permanent A-list?
People who I really like and who are fun at a party. Anybody who would only invite people because of who they are is making a mistake. First of all, it's not the right thing to do. Secondly, it's truly stupid. You never should count anybody out in Washington, because they always come back.
How do you attract interesting and even unlikely combinations of people to the same party?
The late Washington host Steve Martindale really understood, in a most cynical way, how to get people to come. He could call Henry Kissinger and say, "I'm having a party for Alice Roosevelt Longworth," and then call Alice Roosevelt Longworth and say, "I'm having a party for Henry Kissinger." Once you had the two of them, the rest would follow.
Is fancy food essential?
No. One time when the caterer didn't show up, I got the babysitter to go to Popeye's. It was a party for a writer. There were about 12 people for dinner. So we got red beans and rice and fried chicken and biscuits, and it was fabulous. They loved it. Fancy food has nothing to do with the success or failure of a party. Of course you want the food to be good. But the party won't be ruined unless it's so disgusting you can't eat it.
How do yon keep conversation lively?
If you watch the news and read the paper, you can always discuss something that's topical. Something controversial is always good. And when all else fails, you can talk about sex.
What is the obligation of guests?
To come in with a smile on your face, be ready to play and to make an effort: Get around the room, talk to people, meet people, have a good time. And don't destroy furniture or deliberately insult other guests.
What if something goes wrong?
Nobody's perfect. In fact, it's sort of nice if you screw up. Then your guests identify and feel more comfortable.
Is atmosphere important?
Yes. Always plan to have your party in a room that's too small. People want to be where the action is, and if you pack them in, they tend to think, "Oh, my God, this is fabulous. This is the place to be."
What about lighting?
When I have a party I put pink light bulbs in all my lamps. It makes everyone look healthy and young. Candles are also key, lots of candles. Just don't put them on low tables where they will immolate your guests.
Do you need a lot of money to throw a great party?
No. Some of the richest people I know have given the worst parties I've ever been to. And some of the best parties I've been to have been spaghetti in the kitchen. It's about generosity of spirit.