December 09, 1996 12:00 PM

SINCE HER ENGAGEMENT IN 1986, the Duchess of York has let British tabloids, the Palace establishment and erstwhile pals have their say, and she has found herself branded a recklessly self-indulgent commoner who spun out of control after her marriage to Prince Andrew. Now, with six months of single life behind her, she is stepping forward with her own version of her Palace years: My Story, just published by Simon & Schuster.

In heart-to-hearts with sympathetic interviewers including Oprah and Diane Sawyer, Sarah, 37, is delivering the message that, though she was an expert at sabotaging herself, she was badly miscast in the role of royal duchess. Focusing on the loneliness and heartache that she says contributed to her public gaffes, she writes of being abandoned by her mother, Susan Barrantes, who moved to Argentina in 1973 with her lover when Sarah was 14. She says she was wildly happy with Prince Andrew until the first night of their honeymoon, when, serenaded by the Royal Marine band on the royal yacht Britannia, she realized that “to marry a prince was to wed an institution.” And she confesses that her every move as a royal was shadowed by the sense that “I was never cut out for the job…. Even at my dizzy height of popularity, I knew that the clock would strike 12 and I’d be seen for what I was: unworthy, unattractive, unaccomplished. And, finally, logically undone.”

Aside from flirting with David Let-terman on Late Night and trading high fives with Rosie O’Donnell, the duchess also took her message to the reading public during last month’s blitz—drawing healthy crowds to autograph sessions in Manhattan, Toronto and Chicago. Her audiences apparently were dazzled; this week her book is No. 7 on The New York Times bestseller list. As the duchess herself put it to USA Today, “I like America; you give a girl a break.” Last week, however, it was back to Britain, where she faced a hometown crowd in the book department at Harrods—just a short jaunt from Buckingham Palace. The following excerpt from My Story begins in 1992, when the duchess, then separated from Prince Andrew, was nonetheless spending the weekend at Balmoral Castle, the Scottish Highlands retreat where the royals assemble en famille each August and September. She had just learned that photographs of her-topless with John Bryan on the Côte d’Azur three days earlier would be splashed across the next morning’s Daily Mirror.

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