Fun in Washington: an oxymoron?

Maybe the town is a bit self-conscious. Perhaps the endless fund-raisers can become a tad dull. And it is conceivable that a dinner party full of egomaniacal bores could be less than scintillating. But then you stumble onto something like last month's Knock Out Abuse Against Women party. At 2 a.m., exhausted hotel employees had to herd more than 1,000 people out the doors. Everyone was having--dare we say?--too much fun dancing, eating, drinking and flirting to leave.

It's not impossible to have a really good time at Washington social events, but it's rare. There are many reasons to throw a party in this town, but having fun seldom tops the list.

"Washington is a small town and appearances are very important to most people," says Knock Out co-chairman Cheryl Masri, who has lived in Washington for 21 years. "The effect is that they tend to be more withdrawn and cautious. I've seen the same people in New York and they're just different."

Let's face it: Washington is not a wild and crazy town. Parties are frequently social obligations, extensions of the business day. The tone is set by politicians who seldom let loose, what with constituents who frown on excessive displays of mirth from their elected officials. Parties tend to end early because people are exhausted from 12-hour workdays. Or because the events are deathly dull.

"If someone's getting an award I try not to go," says one political insider. "At the worst dinner I ever went to they talked through the appetizer, all through dinner . . . the entire head table was nodding off. We were laughing, and we couldn't laugh aloud so we were shaking. It was speeches the entire night."

Although Washington attracts a fair share of serious people, they are not inherently dull. But workloads can suck most of the fun out of them. People come to town-- expecting to stay just a few years and make their mark--and spend countless hours working in a complicated, fiercely competitive atmosphere.

"It's not really fun," says Jean-Baptiste Lallement, a Frenchman who has lived here for a year. "It's too conservative. Washington is a business center, but people don't live downtown. It's 8 to 6; after that, it's dead."

Lallement is one of three twenty-something interns at a local architecture firm. None of them thinks this town is a great party center. "At 2 a.m., they stop serving liquor; at 3 a.m., they throw you out of bars," says intern Kimoy Chung, who moved here from Miami in 1995. "In Miami, the party starts at midnight and the height is 3 to 4 a.m."

The third intern, District native Emily Macht, says there are exceptions: Adams-Morgan, Dupont Circle. "It's hard to say a whole city is not fun," she says.

Which brings us to the core of the problem: "Fun" depends on how one defines it. If fun depends on staying up all night drinking and dancing . . . well, no--this is not a wild town. But for many people, fun is more subtle.

"I'm biased, because I grew up here," says Wizards announcer Steve Buckhantz. "The mixture of politics, history and beauty makes it unlike any other city in the world. On any given night, the fact that you can run into the president makes it fun."

Or a senator, movie star, ambassador or world leader. "Where else in the world could you sit next to a Nobel Prize winner, an important author or a world-renowned artist?" asks Sydney Ferguson, Sotheby's Washington consultant, who has, in fact, sat next to all three. "That's what's so interesting."

"The best party in Washington I've ever been to was two weeks ago," says Lynn Fuerth, wife of vice presidential adviser Leon Fuerth. Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar hosted a party in honor of Nelson Mandela at his McLean residence; Roberta Flack was the after-dinner entertainment. "That was pretty spectacular," says Fuerth. "It lasted until 1 in the morning. People were dancing, having fun, lively conversations--not everyone was in politics."

"I think Washington is great because of the incredible people I've met," says Eli Segal, a longtime friend of President Clinton who moved from Boston in 1993 with his wife, Phyllis. "The first year or two we did all the Washington things, went to all the parties. That was great, but it really wasn't us. After all the embassy parties and correspondents' dinners, we woke up and discovered we'd made dozens and dozens of lifelong friends. The reason it became fun was the quality of the friendships we made."

Because people work so many hours, they seem to have more fun when they can spend their downtime socializing with friends instead of strangers. The success of some of the large annual charity events, such as the Opera and Meridian balls, is partially due to the familiarity factor.

"People seem to have fun when they all know each other," says Karin Cooper, a photographer for Time magazine. "There's a sense of, 'We can relax. We're off duty.' "

"I've been to political parties that lasted until 1:30 a.m. on a school night," says Masri, the Knock Out co-chair. "Everyone was having a really good time. I think it was the mixture of people--many didn't know each other but knew of each other." It didn't hurt, of course, that the president dropped by.

The fun parties, she says, have common denominators: The invitation is for a Friday or Saturday night. There are no more than 30 guests, so people get a chance to meet everyone. There's a band or pianist for dancing. And the party starts on the later side, 8:30 or so, so people can relax and settle in for the balance of the night.

The point is that to have fun, everybody has to make some effort. Hosts have to put some thought into creating a relaxed, playful atmosphere. Guests have to do more than merely show up--they have to look for the fun.

"There are an awful lot of people who complain that they're so busy and that they're totally exhausted," says Didi Cutler, wife of Ambassador Walter Cutler and a survivor of hundreds of dinner parties. Sure, Washington's social whirl has obligatory events, she says, but boring begets boring. "You can always find someone who is interesting or some topic of conversation that is rewarding."

The same principle is echoed by office manager Cindy Igiri, who says fun in this town requires a little digging. "It's not like New York where everything is out in the open," she says. "In D.C., it's hidden. You have to look for it."

"There are great pockets for whatever you're looking for," agrees Nancy Rubin, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. But then she adds: "I always have fun."

Perhaps it comes down to personality. Fun people find a way to have fun.

"I think it's a fun city," says D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz. "If you only work and then sit home and watch TV--yes, it's probably not a fun city."