scenes from a jolly awkward life

No woman in British history has been given quite such an unremittingly bad press as the Duchess of York. But still she comes back for more - though she claims she's `older and wiser' than she used to be
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Face to face, the Duchess of York is recognisable from the pictures on the news-stands, but only just. She resembles neither the Hello! airbrushed vamp, nor the smudgy tabloid slattern (often photographed from behind nowadays, as if running away). Instead, seeing her with almost no make- up at all, I am reminded that she has the kind of hair, eyes and above all complexion that fashion editors rave about - though usually only when found in others, such as Princess Diana, aka The Blonde.

She wears a good, mildly boring, grey suit. I think it would be appropriate on a successful professional person, a divorce lawyer, perhaps (or, as they prefer, "family lawyer"). Yet she is too alive, too spontaneous, for a lawyer, as one can see by comparison with the fustian entourage of lawyers, with their murmured "ma'ams", who accompany her. No wonder The Firm - as she calls the royal family - though taken aback by her breezy ordinariness, were initially cautiously pleased with this human warmth, a rare quality in their own chilly domestic climate.

Her eyes are clear blue, though lacking the thrush's egg intensity of her erstwhile lover John Bryan's best feature (his only good feature, it is tempting to add). She looks straight at you without pretence, and her speech is as unpretentious and down-to-earth as her manner. Here is no Sloane whine, supposedly redolent of broad acres; she also avoids (unlike The Blonde) that studied photographers' cockney with swallowed consonants and tortured diphthongs. Instead, she speaks nice standard English, distinctly less posh and more flat than the BBC still goes for. She is also in surprisingly high spirits, with a healthy appearance suggesting someone in training for an athletic event, not a burnt-out husk destroyed by low-living and paparazzi. Alastair Burnet described her on her wedding day as the kind of girl "who prefers to be outdoors when it rains", and that is how she still seems. You feel she would be excellent playing strenuous games with children on a weekend by the sea; and that you could happily entrust her with your own.

Yet a Martian reading 1990s press cuttings would probably conclude that this was the wickedest woman of her time. As she starkly says, no serial killer or abuser of the helpless has received the more or less continuous press crucifixion that "Fergie" has undergone. It must be the worst press in history. (The only recent competitors would be Keeler and Rice-Davies and, before them, the Duchess of Windsor. Of these, the first two made no secret of their youthful professional prostitution, while the third was widely rumoured to have acquired her power over the hapless abdicated King thanks to arcane sexual wiles, notably the "Singapore Grip", learnt in a "closed house" in the Far East.) The Duchess of York's intimate and distant cousin, the Princess of Wales, admittedly got plenty of brickbats, but there has always been an irreducibly faithful star-struck constituency for a "Queen of Hearts". The Blonde, as Sarah calls her with ironic affection, often looks and dresses better. She is, God knows, thinner. And thinness is part of a shared core belief so axiomatic it could be biblical - most memorably articulated by the ghostly Windsor duchess: "You can never be too thin, or too rich."

WE MEET in a restaurant she likes near Victoria station. Without excessive fuss a small area is closed off to provide privacy. A team of lawyers and staff sits at a nearby table.

I have spent the previous 36 hours reading her book, as well as the two spectacular literary betrayals of her former confidantes, Madame Vasso and Allan Starkie. Her book is largely an extended apology, in a breast- beating style dictated by what Simon & Schuster, who should know, judge appropriate to the requirements of the US market. Her ghost-writer, Jeff Coplon, veers between prose as lurid as a desert sunset and pastiche Chandler. "Loneliness was an old friend of mine," he kicks off unpromisingly. "It had crept to my bedside each night..." None the less, he does succeed in conveying at least some sense of her and the sometimes perverse ways she chose to act - always supposing that "choose" is the right word for someone who punctuates "up" periods of organised, mildly manic industry with "black dog downs" during which she either can do little, or, as in the case of the involvement with John Bryan which began in 1992, feels taken over and lapses into passivity. As she says abjectly of the affair with the Texan: "I was a puddle of water that summer."

Why does she expose herself in this way? Because she is so much in debt - the result, she admits, of spectacular extravagance - and is therefore obliged "to keep my head sufficiently above the parapet to make money". It is the same trap her father, Major Ronald Ferguson, was in when he wrote his infamous The Galloping Major in 1994. She, understanding his financial dilemma better than anyone, refuses to blame him for exploiting her misfortunes. Such loyalty seems faintly incongruous in one whose own experience, she tells me, has been one damn betrayal after another.

When she was 14, her mother announced that she was leaving to live with the Argentinian polo player, Hector Barantes. True to the traditions of the classic upper-class Nancy Mitford "Bolter", Mum was literally here one day and gone the next. She offered a feeble bribe as "consolation": a new bedroom, which she would especially decorate herself before departure.

" `So you don't mind?' Mum asked me. `No, no. It's perfect. That's great.' " The teenager was doing her best to say what she hoped the adult wanted to hear. This incident, she believes, sowed the seeds of much subsequent sad, "trying-to-please" behaviour, the "chameleon" aspect that John Bryan's associate Allan Starkie would later criticise her for, and describe with great coarseness, in his Fergie: Her Secret Life, the book she spent so much money trying to ban. A year later, her mother and the polo devotee were married. "And that," Sarah recalls, "was that."

Except that it wasn't. The naive teenager was thrust into a public role which magnified her weaknesses catastrophically. Like the Princess of Wales, she had a "hopeless" education which fitted her for nothing but an upper-class marriage. Like countless young girls from her background she dreamt of a prince who would bring romance and security. A harmless fantasy, generally. But she was to be cursed by having her dreams come true.

In fact, both the romance and the security began to melt shortly after the honeymoon. Prince Andrew, who liked to joke about being her "toy-boy" by virtue of being two months younger, abandoned her two weeks into her marriage when he returned to HMS Brazen. He had warned her about this; none the less, she felt betrayed. He thought it perfectly acceptable to spend six weeks a year, and not a day more, with his new wife. Once, she tried to tell Prince Philip how isolated she felt. He said: "The Mountbattens managed perfectly well." Given the nature of their private lives, this was not a helpful example.

When I ask the Duchess about Andrew's approach to fidelity, she refuses to comment. What she will say is that he - like others - was incapable of standing up to the power of The Firm. "I thought I was going to marry my man, go to Portland and be in naval quarters. And then I was told by the family and by the security officers that I couldn't do that. So two weeks after we got married, or three weeks, I was told, `He's going to Portland and you stay where you are.' " Andrew, she adds, "was in the same boat as I was."

And so Sarah's life started falling apart. "I saw him for 42 days a year for five years. I always like going back to fairy-tales. The three little pigs, right? You build your house with stone, and it'll stand up. You build your house with sticks: bang, that's it. Well, that's what we did. We built our house with sticks. So when the storms came, it blew away. I mean, 42 days a year? I mean, come on."

The trouble started, she believes, with It's a Royal Knockout, in 1987. "I got the full blame for that" - both from the media and from the "Grey Men" who run the court. "And then I didn't take Beatrice to Australia, because I wasn't allowed to take Beatrice to Australia, but everyone thought I was an uncaring mother. And that's when the Press started, in 1988. They have not let up."

At first it was mere indiscretion that attracted criticism. "And then I got lost. I landed myself in big, big trouble."

Left alone, the victim of unrelenting media torment and a series of press leaks she attributes to the "Grey Men", she badly needed help. It was not forthcoming from the Firm. "Because the Royal Family are perfect, it must be you who's the problem. Do you know, I think that what they actually wanted to do was cut my head off."

The only offers of help came first from Steve Wyatt and then from John Bryan. Extraordinarily, she thought that Bryan was trustworthy. She believed this because she wanted to, right up to that fateful breakfast in August 1992 when she found herself seated with her relatives in The Firm at Balmoral as they pored over the Daily Mirror's pictures of "Fergie's Stolen Kisses" in St Tropez.

As so often in this tragi-comedy, there was a broadly comic aspect to that much-imagined scene. The family staring solemnly at page upon page of the Duchess's holiday with Mr Wrong was arguably the grandest family in the world, yet here it was conscientiously devoting itself to studying the tabloids. It was hard for them to resist, however: these were the shoddy scripts for their own personal soap opera.

By Christmas, the Big Freeze had begun. Sarah found herself denied access to the big house at Sandringham. Determined to be close to the children, she elected to stay at the gate house. Cars were sent for Eugenie and Beatrice early in the morning. Andrew entertained his daughters, leaving his wife alone like a dog in quarantine.

The Queen remained astonishingly tolerant. Despite the appalling publicity her daughter-in-law had brought on them all, she turned up in the afternoon for a few private seasonal whiskies. Everyone else in Sarah's life might have been throwing her to the wolves, but her mother-in-law offered kindness and support - as she still does. "We talk to each other. I love her. I love her to bits."

This kindness was all the more welcome for being visited upon what Sarah admits, with Wodehousian understatement, has been "a jolly awkward life", full of betrayal. First her mother, then her father, then her absent, unsupportive husband, then Steve Wyatt, the rich Californian who, John Bryan alleges, treated her "the way she likes to be treated, which is like shit."

The list continued with Bryan, with Madame Vasso and with the Allan Starkie expose. Sarah says that this last was the betrayal that hurt most - presumably because it was the most recent. Starkie had become her confidant as the John Bryan affair was evaporating. He was, she thinks, infatuated with her, though she did not reciprocate. But what really hurts, one suspects, is not his betrayal but Bryan's.

IT IS difficult to imagine anyone looking back on any involvement with Bryan with anything but distaste. I even have some experience of this myself. In the final days of their relationship, American Esquire magazine decided to run a profile of a contemporary rake. The Texan's name came to mind. The distinguished US writer, Elizabeth Kaye, was handed this tricky assigment, and found to her surprise that Bryan was only too keen to talk. He was particularly keen to discuss his affair with the Duchess - the one subject he had always refused to mention in the past - and he dwelt on the disastrous St Tropez holiday in a way that aroused suspicions he might have set the trap up himself.

With unusual empathy, he imagined what it must have been like for Sarah on the day the pictures appeared. "Can't you just see it?" he asked Kaye. "Can you imagine, being with your mother-in-law over breakfast of kippers and kedegree and those picture come out and she's the Queen of Fucking England?" Bryan's brutal way with language, and with women, is vividly conveyed by one of his favourite sayings, about Sarah and about women in general: "Keep them barefoot and pregnant in the snow."

Chancer to the end, Bryan was desperately casting round for a move that would enable him to pluck his proverbial "big score" from the jaws of defeat. The ramshackle enterprise Oceonics Group PLC, grandiosely referred to by its chairman Bryan as a conglomerate, was close to going belly up. Bryan had done his best to allay his creditors' fears with references to the Duchess's investments in the company, but they showed little enthusiasm. Now, not for the first time, he was thinking of trying to emulate the example of his father Tony, a wartime Spitfire pilot whose wealth owed much to the fact that he married judiciously four times. (Bryan senior's second wife, Mrs Josephine Abercrombie, was so rich that, in John Bryan's own words, she guaranteed: "I was going to boarding-school in a private Jet Star.")

This was presumably why, when his still married friend was scheduled to speak to the Washington Press Club in aid of a charity, Bryan inserted the words "I'm a single mother, about to get divorced" into one of Sarah's speeches. (When Sarah came to it, she was professionally polished enough to move unhesitatingly to the next paragraph - earning herself a torrent of verbal abuse later, she tells me.) His cooperation with the Esquire piece seems to have been motivated by the same aim: to precipitate a divorce.

By early 1995, as editor of British Esquire, I had acquired a joint interest in Elizabeth Kaye's piece, and to that end had lunch with John Bryan in London. This is my diary entry for 10 January: "Lunch with the Devil, I thought, arriving at The Ivy on the edge of theatreland and observing my companion, the well-known Anglo-Texan so much in the news... From the lofty way he manipulated the ornate menu, it seemed I was to be his guest. Exuding an expensive hygienic aroma of some powdery cologne, he wastes no time in putting me straight on the hotly debated toe-sucking controversy. They were actually playing Cinderella, their favourite game, he says dead- pan. He had been licking the royal foot preparatory to testing it against an imaginary glass slipper. I hope royal historians manage to master these crucial minutiae.

"The Bryan technique is something to have seen. Immensely dramatic and conspiratorial, it is based on the total absorption a hunter has in his prey. A pretence that my company is so enthralling he never as much glances around the room. He never looked at the waiter, so I thought, let alone the other clientele. Just me. Fixation must be his secret to the female heart. He looks immensely well-cared for, more like a valuable though not very attractive object than a human. He is on the edge of being fleshy but all this strength comes across as mental, not physical. Tiring..."

Before the Ivy meeting, I had found it hard to imagine him as the kind of subtle operator who might even have been capable - as some implausible rumours were suggesting - of setting up the St Tropez villa and the Paris- Match photographers. It was only some time after paying the bill and walking out with him ceremonially following that I began to appreciate that there might be more to him than met the eye. By some sleight of hand or flicker of an eyebrow he had managed to get the bill in my hands. It was the kind of thing that happens when a conjuror forces a card on you, only less obtrusive. His heroic father, I learnt, had been a national squash champion to add to his flying and marital laurels. By some Darwinian adaptation the son, though less accomplished on the courts, had perfected a restaurant stroke for not paying bills so reflexive as to be invisible.

One impression from this meeting was carried over to our next encounter, some weeks later, at a dinner given by the Duchess at Kingsbourne, her new Virginia Water house. His Cartier cuff-links, the gold buttons on his double-breasted blazer, even the spanking new Hermes tie he wore like a trophy - all these, it occurred to me, must be gifts from women, or one woman. He was flaunting his worth on his back, as it were, like a pampered mistress showing off her finery.

The Kingsbourne evening, on a rainy March night, was only a partial success. Bryan, with his passion for complexity, had taken over the arrangements and managed to lie to almost everyone present about everyone else. I had been put forward as an old friend of Elizabeth's, without further gloss. Elizabeth's escort, a well-known New York critic who had met Bryan for the first time 24 hours before, had been presented as a friend from way, way back. The Duchess only discovered that I was a journalist after calling Elizabeth at her hotel to ask who this Rosie was. That was probably why, when she swept in to the drawing-room a few hours later, she was clearly disposed to be displeased with Bryan and everyone else. The occasion was largely saved by Elizabeth, who had reached the end of her rope with her unreliable fellow countryman. Turning to Bryan, she said: "You're just a man who's waiting for a woman to make an honest man of you." Sarah enjoyed this very much, as did everyone except Bryan himself. From then on it was a very enjoyable evening and I found real rapport with the hostess - who is almost certainly the most candid person ever to have passed into (and out of) the House of Windsor. She reminisced about the nightmare Sandringham Christmas and the children enquiring: "Why is mummy not allowed in the big house any more?" She also talked of the Queen's surprise visit, the festive drinks, the tears and cuddles and grandmotherly understanding. It was not surprising that her new drawing-room had so many framed and inscribed photographs of the Queen, as well as Prince Andrew. There was a conspicuous absence of snaps of Bryan.

A few months later, when the Esquire piece was published in the US and the UK, Elizabeth and I received a torrent of telephonic abuse from Bryan, who accused us of "telling a bunch of lies" and "getting me all wrong". Sarah, I discovered last week, received a similar torrent on the night of that dinner party - only worse. After we had left, Bryan "tore up my diary and threw it around the room. I wouldn't let him look at it. He hit me. I had bruises all down my arms because I held them up to defend myself. I don't think any woman in the world likes to be hit and I certainly don't."

Why had he been so angry?

"Because I said, `Why did you lie to me?' He said: `I didn't. It's you. You're the one who goes about back-stabbing. You're the one who's messed up our relationship...' "

Further questioning suggests that angry scenes subsequently became commonplace. "Nanny used to sit outside sometimes on the stairs and be frightened by all the screaming."

AT THE end of our meal, it is Sarah who pays the bill. There is, I reflect, a great gulf between Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and her media doppelganger, who travels incongruously before her. The name of this all-purpose tabloid doll, "Fergie", is short enough to fit the most blaring headline. The diminutive reflects that national familiarity we accord to soccer managers, especially when they fail or get caught up to something compromising. For better or worse, she is part of our popular fin-de-siecle culture.

How far what the Firm sees as her delinquent behaviour affected her sister-under-the-skin, The Blonde, and how far Princess Diana's discontent influenced her, is a matter for conjecture. What seems certain is that historians of the future - and, presumably, examinees - will puzzle over such questions as: "How much were the Princess of Wales and Duchess of York responsible for the Twilight of the Monarchy?" It is pleasing to reflect that these two most influential and historic women of our time can muster not one GCSE certificate pass between them.

But Sarah is also a human being for whom it is impossible not to feel sympathy. She has been the victim of plenty of misery and, sometimes, cruelty. She tells me that she received "incredibly cruel" letters from the Duke of Edinburgh, who offered not paternal advice but threats - and angry remarks such as: "You're letting down The Firm. You're letting us all down."

She says, however, that she bears no acrimony against her former husband; just the reverse, in fact. She is, she says, convinced that the Grey Men - Mr X and Mr Y, she calls them in her book - were more responsible than anyone for the debacle of her marriage. Andrew, meanwhile, "like me even", has become "older and wiser... When I first got the feeling the Grey Men were conspiring to get me, he thought I was over-suspicious and making up stories. Now he'd say, if he were sitting here, `I know what she's talking about because I've seen it for myself.' It's a relief to hear that my ex-husband has decided that I wasn't perhaps as doolally as they thought I was."

I ask her if a reconciliation between them is now on the cards. After all, they seem to get on better now - with regular weekend visits when he sees the children and they stay together - than ever they did when they were married. Like many contemporary couples with fractured pasts, they might discover there is friendship after marriage as surely as there is life after cellulite.

It is a bit like speculating about a Beatles farewell concert. None the less, she says: "Yes, we could still get back together."

"Could you really?"

The Duchess of York tries to be discreet. "I'm not sure whether I should say any more."

Maybe the Yorks will become the first family ever to reverse the curse of Hello! !