Nearly 500 Guests Celebrate First Lady Hillary Clinton's 50th Birthday at a White House PartyBy SONYA ROSS

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A steady drizzle and damp chill didn't keep Hillary Rodham Clinton, who turned 50 on Sunday, away from a private birthday party attended by nearly 500 people on the South Lawn of the White House.

The party, in a tent decorated with different motif to reflect each decade of her life, interrupted what otherwise was a quiet and secluded Sunday for the Clintons. They didn't even emerge from church as they usually do.

The three-hour party was private and closed to the press.

Those invited ``were people from the different times of her life,'' Marcia Berry, the first lady's press secretary, said. Also there were the president, daughter Chelsea who was home from Stanford University, and Mrs. Clinton's mother and two brothers.

Berry said the party had a state fair atmosphere with different parts of the tent decorated to reflect the five different decades of Mrs. Clinton's life. In each area were friends and acquaintances from those periods, including people who knew her as a child, in college, in Arkansas and in Washington.

The gathering was a prelude to what's in store for Mrs. Clinton beginning Monday: A public, two-day celebration in her hometown of Chicago that includes a speech, a chat with a historian, a birthday bash at the Chicago Cultural Center and a TV appearance with talk show maven Oprah Winfrey.

The weather Sunday in Washington was in the low 50s and damp, which kept the first family indoors most of the day _ except for the tent party.

In true Washington fashion, Mrs. Clinton's special day was fodder for the Sunday talk shows. ABC-TV's ``This Week'' offered a video birthday card in which average Americans politely swore that Mrs. Clinton looked much too young to be 50.

``Oh, to be 50 again! Just a kid!'' said host Sam Donaldson, 63, as he wished Mrs. Clinton a happy birthday with a quote from poet Robert Browning: ``The best is yet to be, the last of life for which the first was made.''

Mrs. Clinton began celebrating her birthday minutes after midnight early Sunday by taking a few spins around the dance floor during a surprise party at a posh Washington hotel.

Wearing a red satin evening gown, the first lady got a hint that something was up Saturday night when she and President Clinton left the annual black-tie gala of the National Italian-American Foundation and their limousine suddenly detoured from the White House toward the Sheraton Luxury Collection Hotel on embassy-lined Massachusetts Avenue.

Still, aides said, she was genuinely surprised by the party, attended by about 100 friends and daughter Chelsea _ who trekked across the country for her mom's birthday. It was Chelsea's first trip home since she began her freshman year at Stanford University a few weeks ago.

The first daughter crept into the White House from the airport about 2 a.m. Saturday. ``It was a huge surprise for the first lady,'' said spokeswoman Marsha Berry.

The surprise party was planned by Washington socialite Buffy Cafritz and Ann Jordan, wife of Clinton's friend and adviser Vernon Jordan. Party-goers sipped cocktails, then enjoyed a buffet dinner and a giant mocha cake with white icing and far fewer than 50 candles. There was piano music from Van Cliburn.

At one point all the guests were on the dance floor with the Clintons.

Mrs. Clinton also received a cake at the Italian-American dinner _ and a ``Happy Birthday'' serenade from singer Connie Francis.