You say hello!, we say goodbye

You say hello!, we say goodbye

Vulliamy, Dominique

MY STORY by Sarah, Duchess of York Simon & Schuster, flS.99, pp. 296 THE DUCHESS OF YORK UNCENSORED by Vasso Kortesis Blake, fS.99, pp. 308 FERGIE: HER SECRET LIFE by Allan Starkie Michael O’Mara Books, 1499, pp. 208

Like its subject, the Duchess of York’s autobiography is not all bad, but tries too hard:

Up cantered the perfect daughter-in-law: Mrs Bubbly, Mrs Good Form, Mrs I-Can-DoAnything-Better-Than-You . . . How annoying I must have been.

It’s more like Mrs-Sorry-For-Myself, Mrs If-I-Say-I’m-Worthless-Enough-Times

They’ll-Like-Me.

Her self-denigration might be disarming and refreshingly brave once or twice, but on every page it becomes embarrassingly disingenuous and self-serving. The onedimensional account of her relationship with her husband works on the same repetition principle: `He was my man and I loved him’ restated whenever his name occurs may be commendably loyal, but it is the stuff of a 290-page Hello! interview.

When she is not parading her unworthiness, the Duchess provides a unique outsider’s perspective on life within the royal family. Her solitary imprisonment in the Buckingham Palace apartment with its dingy furnishings, heavily-shaded lamps lit by 40-watt bulbs, and compulsorily closed net curtains gives a flavour of the stifling surroundings of her early married life. I remember on my first walk down that long hushed communal corridor being struck by the incongruity of her exercise bike parked between the grand china cabinets.

Her claustrophobia was compounded by her lack of privacy – she could not have a conversation free of eavesdroppers, nor walk from her bedroom in her underwear; a fridge was inaccessible and food had to be ordered the night before; the apartment lacked facilities to make a cup of tea without summoning a footman.

Add to this the oppression of the courtiers who dealt with her by pompous memos and fourth-hand criticisms through official channels. Unquestionably their motives were not to improve the Duchess’s performance, but to show up her many failures; and, however impossible she was, thus far they must be held partially responsible for her disgrace and for the subsequent damage to the royal family.

The Duchess goes further and accuses them of reprimanding her so severely as to risk the health of her unborn baby Eugenie, of leaking the Steve Wyatt pictures, and of setting up the John Bryan toe-sucking exclusive. Here she might add to her list Mrs Just-A-Bit-Paranoid or Mrs Don’tLet-The-Truth-Spoil-A-Good-Drama.

Mrs Pretty-Spoilt appears too. A moving description of her desperate loneliness, crying every day after Beatrice’s birth, is followed by:

I moved into the Castle after he left, feeling fat and self-conscious and altogether hideous. I holed up in my room, writing 750 thank-you notes by hand for the baby presents. It must be hell to receive 750 presents. Of her 3 million overdraft she claims that by late 1995, ‘I was getting healthier at the time. I was taking control of my affairs. I had trimmed my home expenditures.’ She fails to mention the 100,000 party/exhibition she threw in December or the December/January round trips to Qatar, Hong Kong, Paris, Australia, Washington and New York. Interviewed by Ruby Wax last weekend she said: `I’m still HRH. I just don’t use it.’ Perhaps she should add Mrs-I-Live-In-Fantasy-Land.

The ghost-writer constantly intrudes with the sort of contrived cleverness that the Duchess normally despises. I remember a lunch with her last year when a fellow guest asked, `When shall we three meet again?’ She rounded on him, unaware of the allusion, and accused him of being sexist for ignoring the three women present and presuming that `we three’ men would hold the next meeting. Now, a year later, her ghostwriter has her trotting out observations like `absolute adoration corrupts absolutely’ and describing getting drunk as `having partied to beat old Bacchus’. He asks us to believe that the Duchess describes her sweaty armpits as `parabolas of embarrassment’. Her style, as I remember it when she wasn’t in schoolgirl, flowery mode, could be enviably clear and direct. This kind of self-aware posturing just adds to the feeling that the book is trying to portray her as something she is not.

To balance the picture, Vasso Kortesis’s The Duchess of York Uncensored provides a grubby, sensational account of her financial, romantic and sexual excesses as confided to her `spiritual cousellor’, and Allan Starkie’s Fergie: Her Secret Life is an account of her life over the last four years written with the authority of someone who has not only been in her confidence, but has also stayed in her chaotic home, travelled with her on charity trips and been involved in some of her more absurd business schemes.

Vasso has first-hand experience of the Duchess’s outpourings and published first; but Starkie has had unique access. He writes of a frenzied lifestyle, tantrums while staff ran around tending to her dramas and neglecting the screaming children; vacillation over everything, from marrying Bryan to continually cancelling appointments; mood swings and an inability to sustain friendships. Despite their rift last summer, Starkie’s portrayal of the Duchess is not unsympathetic. His description is of a warm, vibrant woman who captivated him, but who is also out of touch with reality, self-absorbed, lacking in judgment or restraint, and ultimately dishonest, if more from self-delusion than by intent.

The three books provide contrasting perspectives. Compare accounts of the toe-sucking episode. From the Duchess: I had been exposed for what I truly was. Worthless. Unfit. A national disgrace. I had made myself an irresistible target. I had turned self-sabotage into an art form – had anyone ever done it quite so well? Was there ever a more perfect masochist. I had violated her [the Queen’s] trust. Starkie reports that she blamed everyone but herself:

She acted in the strangest way – you would have thought she was the person who had been wronged . . .

Vasso recounts the Duchess’s state of mind a few days later: She was also angry with John for not finding somewhere more private . . . `Nobody likes me any more, nobody wants me any more, everyone is pushing me away, how am I ever going to recover from this? Whatever I do goes wrong.’

Vasso recalls the Duchess telling her that Prince Andrew was furious about the pictures and that the relationship had hit an all-time low, but the Duchess claims that his love and support never wavered.

Breakfast at Balmoral on the morning of the Mirror’s toe-sucking expose throws up another discrepancy: Starkie tells the story as I have heard the Duchess recount it many times – she walked into breakfast and the Queen had piled all the newspapers on her breakfast plate. The Duchess in her book claims that she never went to breakfast and that the Duke went down alone, flicking nonchalantly through the papers in front of his family.

Attacking My Story on grounds of objective accuracy misses the point. This is the Duchess’s story, a glimpse inside her fantasy world. As such it can be compelling. The damage is done by her transparent and obsessive attempts to be liked and to earn absolution. With less self-flagellation there might have been a chance to meet Mrs Smart, Mrs Perceptive and Mrs Dynamic, all of whom I remember well.

Dominique Vulliamy was the Duchess of York’s press adviser between 1994 and 1996.

Copyright Spectator Nov 23, 1996

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