Sarah Ferguson: ‘It has been hard putting myself above the parapet’
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To say Sarah Ferguson is unlike a typical interviewee is to say a monsoon is unlike an April shower. The Duchess of York is a conversational flash flood, a torrent of enthusiasm whose debris ranges from the boastful to the modest, the wise to the nonsensical. As royals go, she is less, Après moi, le déluge, more simply Moi, le déluge. And when she recedes, you are left wondering what exactly happened, and whether you can possibly make sense of it.
“You can’t explain me,” she sighs, at the end of our three-hour lunch. Indeed, I nearly gave up trying. No other lunch guest has talked more about their true self, while also seeming to play a part. None has professed their joy, while wearing their past wounds so rawly. And none has presented me with eight A4 pages of famous quotations, from the likes of AA Milne and Emily Dickinson, in case they happen to come up in the conversation.
“If I was you, I would go: ‘That was quite a good quote she said.’ I’ve brought them with me, so you don’t have to write it all down.” How thoughtful, I say. “That is exactly what I adore! If you say, what’s the one thing [about me] — apart from being a great mother, I’ll own that — I love thinking. I love it! Thoughtfulness is my middle name.
“I’ve read every single one of your interviews,” she continues, shortly before commenting on the personality of my mother. I did not expect the Duchess of York to be the first interviewee to prepare more for lunch than I had.
If she is a surprise up close, it’s perhaps because she is so familiar from a distance. She has been a tabloid staple since she married Prince Andrew in 1986, even though they separated six years later. Sarah Ferguson, Sarah York, Fergie, Ferg, Fergo — whichever name you choose, everyone knows whom you’re talking about.
Before Kate and Meghan, Fergie and Diana were the contrasting princesses, their looks and supposed rivalry scrutinised relentlessly. Before Meghan and Harry distanced themselves from royal life, Ferguson blazed the trail — moving to America, sitting down with Oprah and writing children’s books. She helped to expose the facade of the royal fairy tale, while also cashing in on it.
The cash was never enough. At one stage, she borrowed £15,000 from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to pay back her assistant. That “gigantic error of judgment” casts a long shadow, worsened by Andrew’s disastrous attempt to explain his friendship with Epstein in a BBC interview. But now, amid daily headlines about the future of the royal family, Ferguson is trying to bounce back. This month, she launches her first novel for adults, Her Heart for a Compass.
We are seated in a private conservatory of a posh country hotel, a few miles from Windsor Castle. A yellow flower meadow yawns before us. A polo academy is just out of sight. I suggest she should sit facing the window, to have the view. “I’m the view, so that’s fine,” she says, mischievously. “I’m really hungry,” she adds, then ignores the menu for at least half an hour.
“I personally believe today is a first, a first in the new normal,” she begins, and I start wondering where we’re going. “This is a first — that I can start a new career at the age of 61.”
Her Heart for a Compass is published by Mills & Boon, best known for pulp fiction romances. Not for the first time, Ferguson’s instincts clashed with aristocratic stuffiness. “A lot of these advisers that always are advising me said, why are you going to Mills & Boon? I said, do you know how many people’s lives they changed by escapism in world war two? If you’re going to make a judgment, make a judgment on me. The first thing you find if you Google me is absolutely diabolical.”
Mills & Boon guarantees a happy ending, but Ferguson’s own story is the tragi-romance of so many royals: “however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it’s still a cage,” as the novelist Hilary Mantel has put it.
Ferguson draws a parallel between her own misfortunes and those of the tennis player Arthur Ashe. Asked if he ever lamented why he had been struck by Aids, she recalls that Ashe pointed to the number of children that he’d inspired. “It’s not about ‘why me?’, it’s ‘I’ve been put here for a reason’.” Similarly, “I’m the luckiest girl . . . If you were standing up at my eulogy, it’s just the most extraordinary life. I have had the most extraordinary life.”
Is her life glamorous? I ask. “You’ve just got to get on with it. I suppose that’s who I am, Henry. It’s not a pony club, it’s not hearty, I’m not a Sloane Ranger, I just am me.” She pauses. “This is fun.”
Before I arrived, Ferguson befriended the waitress, Marina. “I remember my father’s saying: remember that the kitchen’s more important than the dining room table.”
Most of her childhood memories are less upbeat. Born into the upper class, she was abandoned aged 13 by her mother, who went to live in Argentina with her boyfriend. “I became head of the house at 13, with my sister going to live in Australia. Dad was morose and lived on the horse and the polo ground, so it was just me. I was a storyteller then, but he used to say: ‘Oh, what story are you making up now, Sarah?’ It wasn’t encouragement.”
She “failed everything at school”, though she persuaded her dad “that U was a good mark”. She found a job in publishing, then Diana set her up with Prince Andrew. Shortly afterwards, she married at Westminster Abbey in front of 1,900 guests.
But Andrew’s naval career meant she only saw him 40 days a year. Photos later showed her kissing another man. Prince Philip, in particular, saw her as a “pointless” embarrassment. Worse was to come. In 2010, she was filmed in a News of the World sting accepting cash in return for access to Andrew. It was “a major trauma”, she recalls. Among the few to stand by her was Andrew, her ex-husband.
It’s gone 2pm, and at last the duchess pauses long enough to order. She chooses a burrata salad, with no truffle dressing, followed by sea bass. I go for quinoa, followed by chickpea cassoulet.
“I don’t drink at lunch. I never have,” she says. “OK, I will have a glass of champagne, since it’s a big day, and I just saw a bottle opened, so I know it’s open.” She turns to the waitress. “Pink. If it’s open, though. And if you happen to see Laurent-Perrier lying around . . . ” Shortly afterwards, I hear the pop of a cork.
She describes herself and Prince Andrew as the “happiest divorced couple in the world”. Has she really lived at his official home, Royal Lodge, since 2006? “I’m lucky enough to be a guest at Royal Lodge.”
How normal is her life? Can she go to the supermarket? “Yes.” Does she go to the supermarket? “I could do.” Ah. “I’m very lucky to be a guest at Royal Lodge so I don’t have to. I don’t cook, shan’t cook, won’t cook. I hate cooking.”
I wonder what it means to share a home with your ex-husband. Do they have breakfast together? “No. I have my rooms. He’s that side and I’m this side.” You have your own dining room? “Have you seen Royal Lodge? It’s quite big . . . I have five dogs and he’s normally telling me to control them.
“Andrew and I call it divorced to each other, not from each other . . . Compromise. Communicate. Say what you feel . . . What’s the point in having an argument, honestly? . . . It’s been very challenging for him. None of my life is duty. It’s because I feel it. I want him to come through this. I want him to win.”
Blacknest Rd, Sunningdale, Ascot SL5 7SE
Burrata salad £18
Quinoa salad £16
Steamed sea bass £42
Bean and chickpea cassoulet £20
Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé x2 £48
Llanllyr Source sparkling water x3 £21
Coffee x2 £12
Total (inc. 14% service) £201.78
Epstein — she brought it up, so I press. Does she believe the prince’s version that he never saw anything untoward? “One hundred per cent.” What makes her so sure? She cocks her head to one side, and stares javelins at me.
“No question. I know everything about him. I think he is an extraordinary person. And then you could come with, why aren’t you remarried? Because we don’t believe — we support each other like pillars of strengths with the honour and integrity of truth. He was so good to me when I went through absolute, abject hell. May 23rd 2010 [the News of the World sting]. He unquestionably stood by me. It’s not a tit-for-tat. It’s just, I know who he is.”
She turns to her salad: “I don’t like a bowl!” I return to Epstein. Other people can’t buy Andrew’s claims that he does not sweat, that a photo of him with one of Epstein’s victims was tampered. How does she deal with such details? “Altitude. Big altitude now. It’s hard for people to read this. Why didn’t she say something? He will say, when the time is right.”
She takes some bread: “I haven’t eaten bread for weeks!” Did she think Andrew’s Newsnight interview was a good idea? “Drop it, Henry, drop it. I’m legally not allowed to.” Will he return to royal duties? “He has to answer all that. Thank you, Henry.”
The atmosphere is now cooler than the pink champagne. Suddenly I realise how fragile Ferguson is; how supporting Andrew is not an act of foolishness, so much as the rational response to a lifetime of loss.
I switch to safer territory. Does she wonder why the public love to hate the royals? “You build someone up, you knock them down.” Does she recognise herself in the path of Meghan and Harry? “I really am proud of William and Harry and their wives,” she says. Critics mocked Meghan’s children’s book; Ferguson is kinder. “For anyone to write anything like that is good.”
What she loves talking about is her charity work. Flying back from New York, she came across the grieving parents of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, a 15-year-old killed by an allergic reaction to a sandwich.
“I turned to the lady from British Airways and said, excuse me, I have to do something,” she recalls. “I put my hand through the seat, and [Natasha’s mother] held it. I stayed there for two and a half hours. I kept my hand there. Such an extraordinary story . . . Perhaps I have been an overgrown puppy, and probably still am. But I do have this ability of putting myself in someone else’s . . . I just do.
“If I hadn’t married a prince, I would be doing exactly what I’m doing now . . . It’s this feeling. It makes me happy.” It strikes me that, all at once, Ferguson is waving, and drowning, and trying to swim to the rescue.
We are into the main courses: the duchess declares her fish, topped with asparagus, “extraordinary”; my beans are pleasantly warming.
Her Heart for a Compass was co-written by a Mills & Boon stalwart, pen name Marguerite Kaye. It is not a bodice-ripper, but it’s still Mills & Boon. “The roaring of the waterfall became a roaring in her ears as their lips met,” reads one passage.
“It has been really hard putting myself above the parapet,” she says. “I’m not worried about the book. I just find it quite alarming being so public. I feel a bit public. Didn’t Napoleon say that? Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets . . . It’s when someone is trying to hurt me, and I don’t realise they’re trying to hurt me, that I get hurt.”
The book’s protagonist, Lady Margaret, is an ancestor of Ferguson’s, fleshed out with her own experiences. She is an independent-minded woman, harried by the press, ostracised from a noble family, who goes to America and works to make ends meet.
Ferguson talks with anger at how women were treated: how Prince Albert’s mother Louise was prevented from seeing her children after having an affair, how many other women were institutionalised for having babies outside of marriage.
“I’m lucky I wasn’t locked up. I would have been! I would have been hysterical, and mad, and a witch and burnt, and all those other things . . . You don’t divorce [from a royal] and keep your head. Anne Boleyn didn’t! I’m the only divorced woman who is still alive. I mean, alive physically, but probably in the newspapers totally discredited.”
Marina the waitress offers desserts and coffees. “I am absolutely, 100 per cent not going to have anything, thank you very much,” says the duchess, before ordering an espresso.
She bats away questions about whether Diana was tricked into a tell-all 1995 BBC interview. “I can’t answer that. I suppose what I mean is, why does anyone need to go down the negativity of the past?” She describes herself as “multifaith”, drawing on different traditions: “I’m a very chameleon adapter to whatever situation I’m in.”
She enthuses about her daughters, Beatrice and Eugenie, both now married and working. What kind of life does she hope for them? “Nobody has a normal life, Henry, really. What is normal? After the pandemic, what is normal? Social media’s ramping out of control. Trolling’s terrible. The cancel culture is huge. The cancel culture is a major problem. So what is normal? The way I look at normal for my girls and for me is to keep researching and looking at who you are. If you love what you’re doing, then do it. If you don’t, then change it.”
Her coffee arrives. “This is a sweet little cup, isn’t it? This makes me contented . . . Right now, talking to you, for me is really fun. I want to go on talking like this. Because we could go on for hours. I don’t want to go back to someone giving me grief.”
Grief awaits. Ferguson prides herself on being the University of Huddersfield’s first visiting professor in philanthropreneurship. But her money problems remain. She struck a deal to launch her tea and jewellery company Ginger & Moss worldwide, but the backer, Gate Ventures, collapsed into administration, having squandered large amounts of its Chinese investors’ money.
Gate paid £288,000 to the Duchess but, in a subsequent legal battle, was unable to clarify whether the money was repayable. A High Court judge wondered why, given that the Duchess was also a director of Gate, her interest had not been fully disclosed. More Gate funding is no longer available.
“Very bad luck for me. This is the exact example of me not having the right business advice . . . Come on, give me a break, universe!” Couldn’t she just go to a bank? “Not with my past. Not many banks want to take a punt on me. I haven’t had the best results with finances. Something we need to work on.”
The bill arrives. Ferguson searches for her driver, and showers me with royal-themed gifts for my family — books, a toy corgi, candles, a diffuser of mown grass. I have new insight into why her finances might be overstretched. I notice she is wearing a “Love” hairclip and smoking slippers embroidered “Never Explain” and “Never Complain”. Why wear your heart on your sleeve when you can wear it head to toe?
After we’ve said goodbye, I look at the A4 printouts and find the Arthur Ashe quote. It turns out that he did not say that he’d been put on Earth for a reason. His message was actually about the randomness of life, the limitations of beauty, fame and wealth. Ferguson saw what she wanted to see. Selective vision is what has got her into trouble; it is also what keeps her rolling on.
Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer
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Letter in response to this article:
A cricketing gloss on two tricky lunch encounters / From Christopher Bellew, London W6, UK