The best thing about being a White House social secretary? Nerves of steel. For the rest of their lives, the women who have held this position can throw any kind of reception, dinner or party and not obsess, agonize or panic. "I am afraid of nothing," said Ann Stock, President Clinton's first social secretary. "I'm completely flexible."

Capricia Marshall, the current social secretary, and eight of her predecessors came together for a luncheon last week at Woodrow Wilson House to talk about some of the most famous parties in history. Each woman had an unforgettable experience in that job, and each passed along some tips for anyone who likes to give parties.

The most important lesson of all: Relax. Don't be afraid of entertaining. Things go right and you remember it for years. Things go wrong and you still remember it, but you get over it.

"After working at the White House, the rest of life is like playing poker for matchsticks," said Bess Abell, who served during the Johnson administration. "I think it does keep you from being intimidated. You've had the worst disasters in the world, and the world has known about them. So anything else pales by comparison."

But the same principles apply to every party, whether you're entertaining the Queen of England or your next-door neighbor. The first rule of thumb is to make guests feel wanted, and every social secretary said she had mastered the subtle art of small talk.

"I just followed Mamie Eisenhower's example," said Mary Jane McCaffree Monroe, the senior member of the secretaries group. "Meet everyone and make them feel happy by chatting awhile. She never got into politics or issues of the day. She just wanted to know more about the people."

That sentiment is echoed by the current first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. "What I have learned through the first lady is the guest comes first," Marshall said. "People are generally ill at ease when they come to the White House." All any guest really requires, she said, is a gracious welcome and a comfortable, almost invisible guide through the evening.

That means every hostess should focus on the people by keeping the rest simple. Don't complicate things with tricky menus or elaborate themes. If something does go wrong, take a deep breath, think it through and choose the solution that causes the least disruption.

The social secretaries all picked up a few practical nuts and bolts of entertaining, even though they were backed by the White House staff to execute the details. At home, they have to make do themselves. "I entertain all the time, and I have to do all the work myself," said Letitia Baldrige, who worked for John and Jackie Kennedy.

The one thing Baldrige considers an absolute must is seats for everyone. "Buy card tables and folding chairs," she said. "Have seated meals always. There's too much of this balancing plates on the lap. Men hate it."

Marilyn Funderburk, who served in the Carter administration, had one crucial piece of advice. "I tell you one thing: Be on time," she said. An invitation for a 7 p.m. dinner requires prompt arrivals: 7:15 is good, and 7:30 is the latest a guest can comfortably show up.

Even the most informal private parties, according to Laurie Firestone, require attention to all the elements--food, drink, atmosphere--but also a don't-sweat-the-small-stuff approach. "When you're entertaining at the White House, every little detail is so important," said Firestone, who served with George and Barbara Bush. "When you get out and you're entertaining on your own, you put it all in perspective."

Nonetheless, Firestone always includes flowers and some kind of music in her entertaining recommendations. White House parties started and ended with violins and dancing, which makes her yearn for some musical touch at every gathering. "Even if there's just a piano playing, I feel like it's a real party," she said.

After a stint in the social office, all of these women can throw almost any kind of party without blinking. What it takes, Stock said, is focusing on the enjoyment of the guests and a plan of action.

"If my husband told me he was bringing home 14 people for dinner in two hours," she said, "I wouldn't try to fake it. I'd try to make them all participate."

Stock said she'd run to the store to buy cheese and fresh baguettes. If the weather permitted, she'd buy chicken breasts or steaks to toss on the grill. She'd buy all the ingredients for a salad, and some fresh fruit and sorbet for dessert. When the guests arrived, everyone would get a drink and a job chopping, cooking or grilling.

The point is to get everyone together having fun. A hostess slaving away alone in the kitchen will never create a memorable evening. "What I learned at the White House is that it's most important to talk to your guests," she said.

And suppose the roast burns, the beer runs out and the ice cream melts? What, really, is the worst that can happen?

"Even when everything doesn't go well," Firestone said with a laugh, "you're not going to create an international incident."

CAPTION: Clinton party planners past--Ann Stock, left--and present, Capricia Marshall.