December 09, 1996 12:00 PM

THERE WAS NO QUESTION OF SLEEP. I sipped my brandy and sat in my bedroom. I was the prisoner in the dock, already found guilty. The next morning, I could not face the Family, and Andrew went down to the dining room alone. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had their breakfast upstairs, but my husband’s siblings were there: Charles, Anne, Edward. Plus all the children. It would be accurate to report that the porridge was getting cold. Eyes wide, the adults were flipping through the Daily Mirror. Until they saw Andrew and stopped, as it never feels quite right to be gazing at your brother’s wife when she hasn’t all her clothes on.

All watched for Andrew’s reaction as he went to the newspapers, but he casually leafed through them, as though digesting the cricket results. Then he brought a copy to my room, and I faced the music I composed. The photos were in garish living color, and they strongly suggested that my friendship with John Bryan was more than platonic. I had been exposed, body and soul.

But the horror wasn’t nearly over. I still had to face the woman by whose kind permission I was staying at Balmoral. She was my mother-in-law and my sovereign, and the last person in the world I’d have wished to disappoint. The Queen was furious. Her anger wounded me to the core, the more because I knew she was justified. I curtseyed my retreat, then went up to Diana’s bedroom and sat with my friend. She couldn’t say anything; she was just there for me. For the rest of the day I sought out other family members and apologized to them, one by one. They were all very gracious—even Prince Philip, who could be stern at times, tried to console me. They all knew that I wasn’t the first person in the annals of royalty to be caught in an indiscretion.

Three days later the tabloids carried a fresh scandal: Diana’s so-called “Squidgy tape,” 20 minutes of phone chat with a male friend. I wasn’t the only one being spied on, that much was clear. I went into Diana’s room and thanked her for taking me off the front page; it was our private, rueful joke.

Sarah had-known Diana since they were teens, and it was Diana who arranged for Sarah to be seated next to Andrew at a Windsor Castle lunch in 1985. Six months into their courtship, Andrew invited Sarah to visit his family during their New Year’s gathering at Sandringham, the Queen’s estate in Norfolk, in 1986. Though her father was Prince Charles’s polo manager and she had grown up in the Windsors’ orbit, the breezy Sarah had never been presented as the woman whom Andrew loved.

Sandringham was my first time to be with “just the Family.” I allowed four hours to make a 90-minute trip. With two hours to kill, I stopped at a local pub and changed from my driving clothes into something sort of smart. Then: Should I have a drink? I needed something to soothe me, considered vodka (easiest on the breath), settled on a substantial gin and tonic. Finally, I set off.

As my car pulled up the great drive, I wanted the gravel to be silent so no one would know I had arrived. As I got out of my car Andrew said, “I love you.” I knew what I wanted to answer, but my tongue was knotted, and so I actually screamed. And when he laughed, I just crumbled at the knees.

I had to greet the Family in their gigantic drawing room. My entrance was suitably grand. No sooner had Andrew brought me a drink than I tripped over the piano leg and sent the drink splashing over the sofa. Then, as I curtseyed to the Queen, my boyfriend’s mother, I kicked one of her dogs. It was a glancing blow, but corgis are a melodramatic breed, and you would have thought the little yapper was bound for the Royal Kennel in the sky.

Later that month, I met Andrew for a tryst at Floors Castle in Scotland. As snow began to fall that night, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear him propose, and I accepted with all my heart. As the Queen was in Asia, he couldn’t get her permission for three weeks—a formality, but a real and legal one. In the meantime our engagement would be our intimate secret, to be shared with no one.

But true privacy, as I’d find upon my return to London, was but a memory. Few can understand what it is like to be an ordinary private person and then, overnight, to plunge into a public life. Photographers lodged by my doorstep each evening. When I drove to my office in Mayfair, I would be trailed by five or six cars and a motorbike or two. I took their attention in stride; I rather enjoyed it, actually. Besides, I had nothing to hide. I was just me—the country girl. And I’d fallen in love with this very sweet man who ate M&Ms and who happened to be a prince. In those giddy days leading up to my wedding, the press and I had much in common. We were both quite taken with this creation called Fergie. With Andrew at my side, I felt at ease. I just watched him, and then I jumped in. I had never felt so alive and open to adventure, yet so safe.

Of the more than 600 rooms at Buckingham Palace, my life would be contained in fewer than six of them. Our rooms were done with Victorian density: damask curtains, bland carpeting, brownish wallpaper.

The exception to the color scheme was my dressing room, on one end, which Diana redid in pink and white when she briefly lived there. Next came the dining room, where we’d entertain guests at the long mahogany table. Finally there were Andrew’s bedroom and dressing room, an absolute time warp. Dozens of stuffed animals blanketed the bed, while pink teddys hugged each other atop a lamp. Boys’ guns and bachelor bits lay all over—and I accepted it. I didn’t mind the weighty furniture or the sad electric fireplaces. When you’re in love, anything goes.

Over the four months that led up to our wedding, I swept along with the tide. My first official engagement came in April—Daffodil Day, the Queen’s birthday. I was slightly panicked and moaned to Andrew, “What do I say, what do I do?” Andrew, simply said, “You will learn.”

And I learned! I stood on the Palace balcony—the massed faces blurred below me—and I watched Diana, and I smiled bravely and waved gingerly. Good technique for the royal wave, I deduced, was like screwing a lightbulb. It was all in the wrist.

At 26, I was gullible and naive. Worst of all, I believed it when they said I was a wonderful, fresh, clean page for the Royal Family. I needed to believe it, because for so long I had feared I was no one at all, and how could a no one ever be loved, much less marry a prince?

On July 22, I stayed at Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s residence, as per wedding-eve tradition. I remember the Queen Mother’s footman serving me wine out of a silver dragon decanter. I guzzled it down to feel less alone. All night long I heard the people camped outside my window in the Mall screaming “Fer-gie! Fer-gie!”

I slept for two hours and awoke with a killer migraine, the monster child of all the pressure I’d repressed. So I ordered up a comfort of my childhood, buttered toast dipped into soft-boiled eggs, and just bunged it all down.

In the middle of breakfast the troops began rolling in: the hairdresser, manicurist and beautician, and my mum there for moral support. I was inserted into my ivory wedding dress, an exquisite creation I’d lost 26 pounds to fit into.

A few minutes after 11, the gates of Clarence House swung open to release a matched pair of bay horses and the Glass Coach. There were but two passengers: myself and my father. With nearly a million people lining the one-mile route to Westminster Abbey, Dads looked desperately flustered. But I was just cruising, screwing light-bulbs right and left.

As I moved down that rich strip of blue carpet in a four-minute dream, my hair looking like a gardenia bush, I blocked out the 1,800 guests and the half a billion people watching me on television. All I could think about was my perfect groom, waiting for me, so fantastically good-looking in his gold-braided uniform. I was so profoundly in love, I didn’t realize that in getting my prince I would have to give up so much, not least the man himself.

After a two-week honeymoon, most of it spent with the Royal Family, Andrew was assigned to naval duties in Somerset, 150 miles from London. “We had spent only one night apart since our engagement, writes Sarah. “Now the prince was leaving, and the princess would turn back into a toad.”

Navy widowhood crashed down on me: five days out and two days back. Friday night Andrew would come home tired and grumpy. On Saturday he would get nearly human, but by Sunday lunch he’d get edgy again, because he didn’t want to go. An early dinner, then off to his car. He would make a wide arc as he left the quadrangle, waving all the way. I’d wave back, then run into our apartment and wave some more as he passed through the Palace gates. And then I would put the window down and turn to Michael, my husband’s valet, with tears in my eyes. I would sit in my dressing room, with those stately oils of Queen Victoria staring down at me, and I would break. Through all our time of living “together,” Andrew was home for an average of 42 days per year. His absences gradually destroyed me. I was a romantic, sensual newlywed. And when he left I lost not just my lover but also my mentor and staunchest ally on the crucial matter of being royal. I had to get it right. What was a princess meant to do?

In past chapters of my life, my antidote for the glums had been food and more food. But bingeing wasn’t easy at the Palace. Our flat had no kitchen. Nor did we have a toaster, or so much as a kettle. There was a hot plate to keep tea or coffee warm for visitors after delivery by a footman, and a tiny refrigerator for our Schweppes.

For all else we relied upon the Palace kitchen. Lunch and supper had to be ordered from our menus the night before. Suppertime was 7:30, but by the time the meal arrived, the footman would be weary and my grilled fish invariably cold, for the kitchen sat in a different, distant wing of the Palace. I would fantasize about the all-American household I’d seen in the movies, where Dad and Junior raided the kitchen in the middle of the night and talked over a tub of ice cream.

I had options, of course. I could make the home front less grim by having friends over for supper, but it would require at least one day’s notice, plus a menu summit between my secretary and the deputy master. Conversely, I could go out for dinner, but once again only if I’d planned ahead. I normally sent my policeman home by 7 o’clock to be with his family. I felt guilty if I kept him out at night. For so long I had been the Anti-Planner. I’d reveled in life on the spur. Now my whole workday was programmed down to the millisecond, and I found it abhorrent to have to regiment my social life as well. My solution was simple—for a time I just stopped going out. I would eat my lukewarm supper for one. I would tell myself how lucky I was to have service at all—I must accept things the way they are done.

In early 1987, Andrew asked his parents’ permission for Sarah to leave the Palace and live in his navy quarters. Viewing it as a security risk, the Queen and the duke ruled against the move. The following year, Sarah learned that she was pregnant with the couple’s first child. In May 1988 they settled in at the sumptuous Castlewood House on the outskirts of Windsor Great Park.

The more upset I grew at Andrew’s absence, the more I grew in general. I drowned my sorrows in mayonnaise, sausage rolls and smoked mackerel paté sandwiches. I got bigger and bigger. My hands and ankles swelled. By the day of my delivery, I would weigh 203 pounds. I funneled my devotion into letters, writing to Andrew every day. And my husband wrote me back—wonderful letters, full of feeling. On our second anniversary he wrote to me from Singapore. In August, Andrew came home on two weeks’ leave, and our baby was induced to fit the Royal Navy’s schedule. When I looked into my daughter’s sweet face, I felt such overwhelming pride. We named her Beatrice, after Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter. One week later, Andrew was gone.

In September, when Beatrice was 6 weeks old, I left her with her nanny to join Andrew in Australia. I had urgently wanted to take her with me, but the courtiers informed me it would be “ill-advised.” I needed to shore up my marriage; I sensed we were in trouble. The press, meanwhile, laid the most hurtful charge: that I was a bad mother.

Fergiemania was dead. Defamation starts as a subtle thing. One day your photographs are not quite so flattering. Then you find quotes put in your mouth that are just out-and-out stupid. I was bruised when the press chastised my behavior. I was bloodied when they condemned my taste in clothes. But what hurt most was when they wrote I was fat. During our marriage I would yo-yo up and down. But that wasn’t good enough for the tabloids, not anymore.

The press—clucking over her bad taste, bad habits and profligate spending—wasn’t the only enemy. According to Sarah, Palace insiders, the “Gray Men” who had always been cool to the commoner, were the true architects of her downfall. “Swollen with self-importance, the courtiers tried to bring me to heel,” she writes. “I was getting judged all day long, and I don’t take well to judging. The courtiers could wound me, but they could not move me. I would always be different. I would never fit in.”

Loneliness was an old friend of mine. Yet never was I so lonely as when I was a duchess. I’d made plenty of new friends, of course. When your home address is Buckingham Palace, you ascend to every A-list in town. But after the press turned against me, the invitations weren’t so forthcoming.

On Nov. 2, 1989, four months pregnant with my second daughter, Eugenie, I arrived in Houston to pay tribute to that city’s Grand Opera. I stayed at the home of Lynn Wyatt. I met her son Steve and a friend of his named Pricilla Phillips. Within minutes we seemed like old cronies. When they were around, the darkness lost its power. As soon as I got home, I drove three hours to surprise Andrew. I longed to be with my husband. I missed our old closeness. But Andrew was busy with work, unable to go to dinner.

Tabloid reports that the Duchess and Steve Wyatt had vacationed together in Morocco only heightened the antagonism between Sarah and the Queen’s men, which swelled just before Eugenie was born. As she remembers it, a pair of Gray Men gave her a blistering scolding about her friends and her behavior on March 9, 1990. She reports that, dizzy and faint, she felt Eugenie turn herself into a breech position; 14 days later, the princess was born by cesarean. “I still carry the scar,” writes Sarah.

For the Merry Wives of Windsor, as the press called Diana and me, 1991 would be a year of unrest—when we first put words to the unspeakable idea that one or both of us might leave the Royal Family. We burned the phone wires into the night trading secrets and jokes that no one else would understand.

The more alienated we felt, the more outrageous our conduct. One night at Balmoral, we liberated the Queen Mother’s Daimler, this huge antiquated car with storefront windows. Diana got in front and drove with a chauffeur’s cap to top off her long dress. I sat in back, screwing lightbulbs as we rolled along the deserted drive. “Faster, Smithers!” I commanded. Diana sunk her foot down, and we did gravel spins all the way around the castle. We never got caught for that one.

The tragic thing about being ostracized is that it keeps getting worse. You come to be the focus of all negative attention. The Firm was getting more aggressive. I was “advised” to cancel a ski trip because it “wouldn’t look good.” I saw my life disappearing and got in a panic. I now realized I had sold myself into a package deal. To be married to Andrew was to be wed to the Firm, and I had to get out. No longer could I feign to respect, honor and obey that institution. If I remained in the Royal Family, the best part of me would die.

On Jan. 21, I told Andrew at dinner that I thought we should separate. We were both very sad. It was the last thing we had wanted. But he did not try to argue: “If this will make you happy, then I still stand by you.”

The next morning we went to see the Queen. I walked in gripping my rosary for strength. “I am so sorry,” I said, “but I think this is best for you and your family—I can’t go on letting you down.” The Queen looked sadder than I had ever seen her. She asked me to reconsider, to be strong and go forward. But I was resolute.

The girls and I would leave our home, and quickly. My in-laws proposed that we move down the drive into the keeper’s house, a two-room cottage with a bathroom outside. “A lick of paint and it will be fine,” the Duke of Edinburgh said. But I wasn’t that defeated, not where my girls were concerned. I rented a house nearby. My housing allowance wouldn’t cover our expenses, and my overdraft would bulge like an old bicycle tire, but so be it.

Having cast myself adrift from the Royal Family, the emptiness swelled inside me, and my terror along with it. For escape, I reverted to my old compulsive behaviors. My diet went haywire, I spent money like I really had it. And then there was John Bryan. Andrew and I had met him at a dinner in 1990. He had been exploring high-tech investments with his father. I was impressed by his boldness and energy.

On Feb. 20, 1992, John asked me to dinner. I was needy and full of doubts; he was attentive and self-assured. I swallowed everything he dished up. I believed he was a fabulous tycoon. “Leave everything to me,” he said. And I did. He was marvelous with my daughters, and it wasn’t long before I thought that none of us could live without him. It never crossed my mind that he might be using me. John was desperate for a big financial score and a secure niche among the glitterati; I was desperate for approval and affection. We were doomed.

And, it seems, all too likely to find themselves in a trap. As the duchess put it to Larry King, it was “the Gray Men [who] tipped the press off” when she and Bryan went to the South of France in 1992. By the time her marriage ended, Sarah was reportedly $7 million in debt. Her relationship with Bryan had sparked “the biggest scandal since the Abdication of 1936,” in the words of the Daily Express, and the press had exposed her every foible. What the duchess took with her after the Yorks’ divorce, however, was her husband’s friendship and support: “I love him,” she said last month.

I’m easier with myself these days, more forgiving, more content. I don’t want to be the kindest and prettiest and cleverest anymore. I just want to be. Sarah—and for those who love me, that will be enough. At the same time, I would follow my heart again, all the way into Buckingham Palace. I would not change a day of it, not even that hellish day at Balmoral when I felt like Eve fallen from grace.

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