Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Just Sarah (1959)

Jul 23, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



       Tales that begin with the words “once upon a time” lead girls to believe they are princesses-in-waiting, that a handsome prince will whisk them off to a “happily ever after.” Alas, with royal paramours in short supply, women must look elsewhere. Hence, when a duchess exposed the reality beyond fairy tale enchantment, her revelations packed quite the punch.

     If one is known by only one name, it is safe to assume the individual has attained publicity stature-Cher, Madonna, Adele, Oprah, Barbie- and a British blueblood, known as Fergie, (birth name, Sarah).  Burke’s Peerage states she is a direct descendent of Charles II and his mistress, Lucy Walters. She was the second daughter of Susan and Major Ronald Ferguson, who raised Sarah and her older sister, Jane, in Dummer, a well-heeled hamlet southwest of London. At a local polo match, Sarah met Prince Andrew, the second son of Queen Elizabeth II. Sarah’s father played the sport with Andrew’s father, Prince Philip, on the grounds of Great Park at Windsor Castle, and served as the polo manager for his brother, Prince Charles. A further commonality: they could both trace their families back 400 years to their common ancestor, King James I. When Sarah was twelve, Susan announced she was moving to Argentina to live with her Latin lover, Héctor Barrantes. Sarah recalled, “I didn’t want her to go, but I didn’t want to upset her, so I told her I understood and then I ate.” In 1975, while in Italy, Sarah received the news Susan had been decapitated in a car accident in the Argentina pampas near her ranch where she raised polo ponies.

      Ronald enrolled Sarah as a weekly boarder at Hurst Lodge School in Ascot, whose teachers and students remember her for her pranks such as sliding down the broad stairway on a down-filled comforter and leading food fights with dinner rolls in the dining hall. 

      In 1982, Sarah fell for Paddy McNally, a wealthy widower twenty-two years her senior. Their relationship entailed fabulous vacations and ended after three years when Paddy did not take Sarah up on the ultimatum: present her with a ring or she would bid him “cheerio.” 

     Princess Diana arranged for her friend, Sarah, to meet her brother-in-law, Prince Andrew. The matchmaker royal added Sarah’s name to the guest list for a house party the queen traditionally hosts at Windsor Castle during the week of the Royal Ascot. Seated next to one another, the playful prince tried to force Sarah to eat profiteroles-a chocolate stuffed pastry-over her objections she was on a diet.

       Andrew, a naval lieutenant, left for sea duty, and Sarah returned to the apartment she shared with her friend. Then flowers arrived, accompanied by cards from the prince. The royal racked up their relationship when Andrew invited Sarah as his guest at his family’s New Year’s Eve holiday at Sandringham. Subsequently, they were spotted holding hands in public. Romance rumors spread when Sarah and Diana went on a tour of Andrew’s ship, the HMS Brazen, docked at the Thames River. Ten days later, after the Brazen’s departure, Sarah went skiing in Klosters with Charles and Diana; reporters followed on the scent of a palace romance. When asked if she were dating the prince, Sarah responded in the voice of a British soap opera character, “Cor blimey, darling, you must be joking.” The couple secretly rendezvoused in Floors Castle, Scotland-where they had shared their first kiss- and on bended knee, Andrew popped the question. On their engagement day interview, the prince explained he had fallen for Sarah’s red hair; his fiancée added, “And the good looks.” With a custom ring that consisted of an oval-cut Burmese ruby surrounded by ten diamonds, Sarah moved into her own room in Buckingham Palace. They gushed that they were “over the moon with happiness.”

     The press could not get enough of the woman who had captured the heart of the world’s most eligible bachelor, and they scrutinized every aspect of the freckled-faced, titian-haired, Rubenesque figured future bride. Although Sarah handled the media frenzy far better than had the shy Diana, she resented the attention focused on her generous proportions. When Madame Tussaud’s unveiled her wax figure, a photographer jumped across the barrier and wrapped a measuring tape around its hips. “Forty-two inches” was the pronouncement. Britain went into Fergie-frenzy, and her likeness stared back from T-shirts, wristwatches, and perfume.

     The Windsors welcomed Sarah into their fold, relieved that the prince, dubbed “Randy Andy,” had chosen an aristocratic girl, as opposed to his previous relationship with Koo Stark, notorious for her soft-porn films. Buckingham Palace described the wedding as “essentially a family affair,” a nod to English understatement as 1,800 guests received invitations to the Westminster Abbey ceremony, while the worldwide television audience was an estimated at 500 million from fifty countries. Sarah wore an embroidered ivory silk wedding dress with a seventeen-foot train, which had the letter “A” and “S” sewn into the fabric in silver beads, along with a twenty-foot veil. Miss Ferguson decided to include the promise to “obey,” in contrast to Princess Diana who was the first royal bride to drop the word. The queen gave the newlyweds, both twenty-six years of age, the titles: the Duke and Duchess of York.

     To borrow from Ms. Austen, “it is a truth generally acknowledged that” when Sarah Ferguson entered the House of Windsor, she was not in possession of the book on palace etiquette. Living in the castle was not the fairy tale it appeared from the outside. Soon after the wedding bells pealed, the prince left for his job at the Royal Navy, leaving Sarah to fend for herself in a palace that enforced stringent protocol and stiff upper lips. She fretted that she had to spend her entire first pregnancy without her husband who had only ten days of shore leave to bond with his baby, Princess Beatrice. After his departure, Sarah broke down in tears, only to be told, “Grow up and get a grip.” Prince Charming also seemed less charmed by his bride than before the tying of the knot. While Andrew had liked her outfits pre-nuptials, as her husband he chastised her for wearing flimsy skirts that flew up in the presence of 100s of photographers. The press also turned on what had once been their media darling: after her weight increased, they pronounced her Frumpy Fergie and constantly compared her to Diana, her rail-thin sister-in-law.

     Despite their obvious regard for one another, and the arrival of their second daughter, Eugenie, the couple, no longer over the moon, separated. In 1992, an infamous tabloid surfaced of the duchess, sans top, with John Bryant, the Texan millionaire, sucking her toe at a villa near Saint-Tropez. When the scandal hit, Sarah was holidaying with her in-laws at Balmoral Castle. In her memoir, My Story, she wrote how excruciating it was to show up for breakfast as the not amused Queen perused headlines such as “Fergie in Conference With Her Financial Advisor.” Her response may have been along the line of, “Cor blimey, darling, you must be joking,” with a synonym replacing darling. Prince Philip never forgave “toegate.” Fergie in flagrante cast the Windsors in the role of a dysfunctional family-the Simpsons in tiaras. A downcast Sarah, (who epitomized the name of Andrew’s ship), stated, “I’m just not flavor of month right now.” The hoopla put the kibosh on a reconciliation, and the couple divorced in 1996. The Windsor clan stripped Fergie of the title “Her Royal Highness” as well as her twenty attendants, including six ladies-in-waiting. As the second son, Andrew technically subsisted on his military salary that never paid more than $50,000 annually. The new financial reality was a wrecking-ball situation for Fergie who explains she suffers from “overspending disease” and had accrued millions of dollars of debt. Her monetary woes led to the British version of Watergate.

      In 2010, Sarah was in the eye of the storm of an undercover journalism exposé when an “international business tycoon” recorded her offering access to Prince Andrew-a trade envoy for Britain-in exchange for $820,000. The News of the World had orchestrated the sting and, even more of a royal pariah, Sarah did not receive an invitation to the 2011 wedding of William and Kate. To help lessen the slight, Sarah vacationed in Thailand. An emotional eater-she scoffs down Skittles-her weight ballooned to 220 pounds. The press referred to her as The Duchess of Pork; a headline stated, “82% Rather Sleep With Goat Than Fergie.” 

    A bop bag that keeps getting back up, Sarah refused to disappear. In a masterful move designed to lose weight and earn money, she signed a deal with Weight Watchers that earned her 1.7 million dollars a year. In the doghouse with the Queen, she turned for help to the queen across the pond. Oprah made Ferguson the subject of a six-part documentary, “Finding Sarah. From Royalty to the Real World.”

     Despite their divorce, Andrew and Sarah’s romantic spark was never snuffed. The prince allowed her to live, rent free, on the grounds of his residence, the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park. For her part, Sarah is standing by her man during his involvement in the Jeffrey Epstein sex scandal. Sarah stated, “We are the most contented divorced couple in the world.”

     Perhaps more revealing than the Oprah interview, or her memoir, occurred during a Canadian interview. On that occasion, Sarah handed out her business card where she had drawn a line through the title. “The Duchess of York,” and replaced it-in red ink-with “Just Sarah.”