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BY ALL ACCOUNTS, IT WAS A SUBDUED HOLIDAY FOR the Duchess of York. While it was grouse shooting as usual for most of the Queen's family during their traditional August expedition to Balmoral, Prince Andrew's estranged wife was lying low. Not that she lacked for exposure: That very week astonishing photos of a decidedly overexposed, bare-breasted Duchess frolicking on the French Riviera with "financial adviser" John Bryan had been splashed across the pages of London's lurid Daily Mirror. They unleashed the fiercest public outcry yet against the wayward younger royals and the costly monarchy itself.

Thus, when Princesses Beatrice, 4, and Eugenie, 2, witnesses to their mother's seminude dallying, went swimming at a nearby hotel during the Windsors' Balmoral getaway, it was Princess Diana, not their mum, who acted as chaperon. Nor was Fergie on hand when Princes Charles and Andrew picnicked with the Queen on Aug. 21 or when the family gathered to celebrate Princess Margaret's 62nd birthday that evening. As the London Daily Mail told it, a physician "gave [Fergie] something for her nerves" shortly before the fete began.

Not surprisingly, the Duchess' nerves had been an issue from the moment she set loot in Scotland. On Aug. 19, the day she learned about the impending publication of the embarrassing photos, Fergie moved out of her quarters in the Queen's Balmoral Castle and into nearby Craigowan Lodge, where Charles and Diana were staying. By one account, she spent the next two days talking on the phone and having long, sometimes tense discussions with her sister-in-law. "Raised voices were heard...," said the Daily Mail, "as the lights burned into the early hours.

As if Fergie's debacle weren't enough, Diana herself was about to become caught up in another upheaval. Four days after Fergie's indiscretions were revealed, the racy tabloid Sun published what it claimed was a transcript of an intimate 1989 phone conversation between Princess Di and a man whom some royal watchers pegged as her friend James Gilbey, a salesman for the Lotus car company. Many commentators deemed the tape a clever fake, and Buckingham Palace pronounced attempts to identity the female voice "inconclusive." (Gilbey issued his own denial, saving that he was not the man involved.) Still, the incident only underscores what the Fergie photos have made clear: The marital problems of the younger royals and the press' pursuit of every sordid detail has landed the monarchy in its worst crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII.

If Fergie was a bit unhinged, her reaction was understandable. As some see it, the photos of the topless Duchess embracing an ardent Bryan have destroyed any chance of a rapprochement with the royal family. Taken by an Italian paparazzo at a villa near Saint-Tropez, where the couple vacationed in early August, the 40 shots published by the Daily Mirror (which sold out its 3.5 million press run by 9 A.M. on Aug. 20) graphically depict their poolside high jinks. In one notorious frame, tiny Eugenie watches as her mother locks lips with the balding suitor. In another, Bryan lies atop Fergie in a deck chair, kissing her energetically. In yet another, he brings her bare foot to his lips and smooches on her instep. And while none of the pictures are X-rated, the net effect is devastating. As the London Daily Star noted, "The British people are now fed up with the frolics of Fergie. It's one thing to be a troubled wife with marriage problems. It's another thing to be a trollop."

For its part, the Palace seems to agree. On Aug. 19 a press aide said brusquely, "People will be able lo make up their own minds [about the photos]." Buck House later issued a denunciation of snaps taken on the sly, but the message was clear: The hapless Fergie had gotten herself into her most disgraceful imbroglio yet, and she would not be rescued by the Queen.

Observers were stunned by the Duchess' carelessness: Although the villa that Bryan rented from British businessman Charles Smallbone is surrounded by a low wall and a pine forest, it is hardly impregnable. With only two Scotland Yard detectives (whom the photographer snapped snoozing by the pool) to keep paparazzi at bay, parading about topless would have seemed ill-advised at best.

Certainly the photos could not have surfaced at a less auspicious time. Although Fergie had moved with her girls into bachelorette quarters in Surrey after her separation from Andrew, public appearances with her husband and a summit at Ascot with the Queen had fueled rumors of a deténte. (Ironically, Bryan—who claimed to be a good friend to the Duke as well as the Duchess—had tried lo throw off the press by claiming he was engineering a reconciliation.) Even if a patch-up hadn't been in the cards, a cordial relationship could only have strengthened Fergie's bargaining position with her mother-in-law, who reportedly had asked her to Balmoral to discuss her future. (The Queen may be weighing her options, but the British public seems to stand firm: In a poll that appeared in the Sunday Express on Aug. 23, nearly nine out of 10 respondents said that Fergie should be stripped of her title if she and Andrew finally divorce.)

Even before Fergie left Balmoral on Sunday—skipping church services and stoking rumors that she had become a pariah—the press had picked apart her putative suitor. Portraying Bryan as a hail-fellow social climber with a penchant for rich women, they shed a ruthlessly unflattering light on the man who had styled himself Fergie's protector.

The son of a Mexican-born British businessman and an American woman, 37-year-old John Bryan "comes from a long line of ladykillers," in the words of stepmother Pamela Zauderer Bryan, third of his father's four wives. Pamela, 47, who married Bryan's father, Tony, in 1978, describes her stepson as a "charming" sort who has shown little interest in settling down. Still, she says, he's no lothario. "He's a very nice, kind person. [He's just had] a difficult life."

Born in Wilmington, Del., John spent his formative years in Akron, Ohio, in New York City and in Ladue, Mo. His father (a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who had graduated from Harvard Business School) worked for Monsanto from 1947 to 1973. After his first marriage broke up, Tony was assigned custody of John and his two older sisters. In 1964, Bryan's father wed Houston-based heiress Josephine Abercrombie but did not settle in Texas until 1973, when he became president and CEO of Cameron Iron Works, his wife's family's business. Fourteen years later he divorced Josephine and wed Pamela Zauderer (who had been the wife of Houston magnate Robert Sakowitz).

Despite Tony Bryan's marital preoccupations, the uneven professional fortunes of his son John (who had earned a B.A. in economics from the University of Texas and a master's in business from the University of Pittsburgh) were bound up with his own. John received financial backing from Tony in 1985 when he and others invested $2.5 million in ENCOM Communications, a Georgia-based company that was breaking into the satellite business. ENCOM gave up the ghost in late 1989, but by then, father and son had moved on, and after a second money-losing venture, John now serves as an executive of Oceanics Deutschland, a German health-care company.

A gung ho sportsman with a taste for Moët, Fergie's Riviera housemate receives mixed reviews as a businessman. Disgruntled investors including London columnist Taki Theodoracopulos allege that ENCOM was poorly managed by a free-spending, high-flying Bryan, whose travels helped log $400,000 in expenses in a year when the company lost $1.1 million. As one investor has said, "You have to give Johnny credit for one thing: He knows how to live."

"John is charming, gracious, very much of a people person, jolly and good to be around—but in business, he's a user," adds Georgia Stuart, wife of Ray Stuart, the Scientific Atlanta executive who founded ENCOM. "He got the pertinent information from my husband and ended up seizing the opportunity for himself. He was a lovely guy [in some ways], but he could also be reckless and irresponsible."

Since 1987, when he moved to London, Bryan has established a reputation as a fast talker with a penchant for blue-blooded bohemians. Although his Chelsea flat is unimpressive, he also rents an 18th-century cottage in Gloucestershire, where he holds house parties, hunts and plays tennis. Experienced with women, he has wooed aristocrats including Geraldine, Lady Ogilvy, daughter of Daily Mail owner Viscount Rothermere.

As friends tell it, it was in 1990 that he met the Duchess of York. Ironically, it was Steve Wyatt—the wealthy Texan who was her escort at the time—who introduced the two. A distant relative of Bryan's who allegedly preferred glamorous sorts, he offered Fergie to John as a kind of hand-me-down, according to one report. With the press on his trail, Wyatt soon faded from the scene, but John quickly stepped into his shoes. As once audacious Andrew settled into a numbing shore life of golf and video watching, Fergie stepped out more and more often with her dashing American. In January, they danced all night at Annabel's, London's most chic nightspot; two days before Fergie's separation was announced, they were spotted drinking champagne in the bar of London's Sheraton Park Hotel. After her split became public, the two packed their bags for a 36-day tour of Thailand and Indonesia, a five-day jaunt to Argentina, a spree in Paris and a journey to Scotland.

Through it all, Bryan was insisting that he was merely Fergie's financial adviser, and Fergie's husband apparently posed no objection. "Put it this way," says Taki. "Andrew is a nice guy, but he has the brain of a husk. He [was] taken in by all this 'financial advice' and guidance. We all knew what Bryan was up to ages ago."

By some accounts, the Yorks' daughters, who were taken along on their mother's South Sea odyssey, have been exposed to a kind of decadent disarray for some time. In August a London paper reported that Bryan had moved into Fergie's home, Romenda Lodge. The rumors were denied, but nannies Allison Wardley and Sally Fish have resigned—in part, it is said, because of Fergie's moodiness and the presence of her lover.

The Princesses' upbringing, of course, will be a crucial element in any separation agreement. Some observers predict that Andrew will seek custody and that Fergie (whose own mother left her husband and two daughters to wed an Argentine polo player) may relinquish the girls in exchange for a fat settlement to be parceled out as long as she toes the line—and refrains from penning a lucrative tell-all. Others note that since navy man Andrew is set to take command of his own ship in September, custody of the Princesses could prove problematic. As columnist Nigel Dempster has noted, "The Queen must step in and take charge. Any decision she makes will be dictated by her feelings for her granddaughters and...her favorite son. He has played an unwilling role as the apparently cuckolded husband, and [she] will be anxious to put him out of his misery."

At the moment, the Duchess' options include staying in Britain, where she could supervise her daughters and retain her title (if not her standing in society) or settling childless on the Continent, where she would probably remarry. As some observers see it, the most likely prospect would be leaving Bea and Eugenie and going into exile in the States, where she undoubtedly would be welcomed by Yanks yearning to rub shoulders with royalty manqué.

With her fate still in the balance, Fergie was rumored to be heading for Argentina to join her widowed mother, Susan Barrantes. For their part, the little Princesses were expected to remain in London, where the scandal—and popular disapproval of the Windsors' chaotic lives—raged unabated. "The royal[s] used to represent family unity," Debrett's Peerage coeditor David Williamson told one reporter. "These days, they seem synonymous with family turmoil."

MICHELLE GREEN
TERRY SMITH and MARGARET WRIGHT in London

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith,
  • Margaret Wright.