February 03, 1992 12:00 PM

AT 35,000 FEET ON THE NIGHT FLIGHT HEADING FROM FLORIDA to London on Sunday, Jan. 19, first-class passengers were suddenly surprised by a bit of turbulence. Outside the jet the weather was calm, but inside the champagne was flowing and the condiments flying. The source of the maelstrom was Britain’s Duchess of York, who, after downing two glasses of bubbly, began lobbing sugar packets at her companions, her father, Maj. Ronald Ferguson, and her secretary, Jane Ambler.

While her fellow fliers watched in wonder, Fergie, 32, then added shrill bird noises, made faces at her father over the back of her seat and waggled her tongue at him through a hole poked in a plastic bag pulled over her head. Finally, after some sevruga caviar and more champagne, the Duchess look a furtive Marlboro break, then fell asleep. “It’s just high spirits, old boy,” an apologetic Major Ron, 59, told journalist and fellow traveler Ashley Walton of London’s Dally Express. “My daughter’s been working very hard in Florida and is just letting off a little steam.”

A geyser is more like it. Fergie’s airborne antics come at a time when she is under fire at home for taking both her marriage vows and her royal duties far too casually. Known as an entertainingly loose cannon since she married Prince Andrew, now 31, in 1986, the restless royal soon embarked on a collision course with the very institution that provides her lavish lifestyle.

The latest skirmish began two weeks ago when London’s Daily Mail told readers about a set of 120 pictures of the Duchess taken during a May 1990 vacation in Morocco with Texas playboy Steve Wyatt. Reportedly there is nothing racy about the photos; the paper described them as “typical holiday snaps” showing a couple of close friends on vacation. The problem, as perceived by the royal family, is that it is inappropriate for Fergie, when vacationing alone, to be quite so chummy with any man not her husband—especially if that man is Wyatt.

The stepson of natural-gas wheeler-dealer Oscar Wyatt and his socialite wife, Lynn, the younger Wyatt had met the Duchess during her 1989 visit to Texas. He later moved to London, settled near Buckingham Palace and became her occasional companion at dinners and other private social events. A set of the Morocco snaps had reportedly been seen by Queen Elizabeth as far back as the summer of 1990, prompting anger on her part as well as Andrew’s. Last year Wyatt returned to the States and now lives in Alexandria, Va.

That might have been that. But then another set of the Morocco prints was said to have been found by a cleaner in Wyatt’s former London flat and offered to the Daily Mail. Showing uncharacteristic restraint—presumably because it is barred by law from publishing stolen photos—the newspaper chose not to print the pictures and instead had them turned over to Scotland Yard. Nonetheless, two weeks ago, editors decided to provide readers with breathless descriptions of selected snaps, including one of Fergie and Wyatt, in shorts and sweatshirts, sitting on a swing with their arms casually draped around each other’s shoulders.

Naturally, the Mail was outraged, declaring that what was offensive “is not so much the holiday itself, which the Palace and her husband, Prince Andrew, knew about. It is the unthinkable and even casual way the friendship was conducted, with little concern for repercussions on the royal family.”

Seemingly unbothered, Fergie kept a date in Palm Beach just days later, when she appeared with actress Stephanie Powers at a Jan. 19 polo match benefiting the William Holden Wildlife Fund. But if the Duchess thought she could blunt her bad press with good works, she was wrong. Instead, she dug herself in deeper by attending a dinner dance at the Everglades Club, which excludes Jews.

Of course, Fergie has seldom let royal protocol get in the way of a good time. At first greeted by the press as a refreshing change from the rest of the fusty Windsors, she began wearing out her welcome with her late-night club crawling and unpredictable ways. By the time the photo furor erupted, Fergie had already run up a royal rap sheet that included overstating the amount of money she would give to charity from the sale of her Budgie children’s books, building a garish (now worth 89 million) country estate in an environmentally restricted area and being a less than attentive mother to daughters Beatrice, now 3, and Eugenie, 22 months.

But she was repeatedly forgiven her sins. According to royal biographer Anthony Holden, she and Andrew were widely regarded “as a couple desperately in love. Despite his being away a lot as a naval officer, they seemed to have a really healthy and full-blooded married life.”

That blissful veneer was stripped away by the discovery of the Morocco pictures. Andrew’s naval sorties, in fact, have often served as a convenient face-saving device for the Yorks, creating the public notion that all of Fergie’s vacation forays took place while her Prince was at sea. Actually, Andrew was at home while his wife was in Morocco in 1990 and also when she joined Wyatt in the South of France two months later. And though the Wyatt alliance is now over, the Yorks’ pattern of separate lives continues. Andrew declined to join his wife on her recent skiing trip to Switzerland, and the couple have no joint engagements scheduled for the entire first half of this year. “Appearing together used to be fun for them,” says a palace source. “No more. There’s just too much friction.”

Prince Philip, the family arbiter of acceptable public demeanor, these days refers to his daughter-in-law as “that woman,” and Princess Diana, once a close friend, has lately kept aloof from her errant in-law. Most telling of all may be the Palace’s official reaction to Fergie’s latest foibles: resounding silence. There has been little effort to put the usual gloss on her actions. Notes a palace source: “Every single indication is that they know the situation is at least as bad as the papers are saying.”

How the Queen and her top advisers react to the latest flap could be a sign of what’s to come. Andrew hasn’t spoken publicly about the Morocco snaps, and the Palace could hastily arrange some calm-the-public joint appearances for the Yorks, as it has from time to time for Di and Prince Charles. If it doesn’t, omens for the marriage may not be good.

When she joined the royal family, the Duchess was given her own coat of arms, for which she chose the motto: Ex adversis felicitas crescit—”From adversity grows happiness.” It remains to be seen if those words were more hopeful than prescient.



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