FOR A DUCHESS DESPERATELY TRYING to shake her image as a decadent do-nothing with a weakness for sweet-talking Texans, it was an unfortunate development indeed. On Feb. 7, London began tittering over an explicit tell-all In Lesley Player, an ambitious British businesswoman with connections to the polo crowd. Her claim to fame? In the words of the headline splashed on page one of the racy News of the World: "I slept with Fergie's fella and her father."
Touched by scandal last year when she was rumored to be Maj. Ronald Ferguson's extramarital squeeze, Player, 34, has confirmed it all in My Story: The Duchess of York, her Father and Me. Hers is a seamy bedtime tale that involves not only Fergie's father but Steven Wyatt, the very social Texan seen at Fergie's side in 1991, and (in a supporting role) John Bryan, the "financial adviser" snapped nuzzling the Duchess' toes last summer. "Frozen out," as she put it, by the Fergusons in the wake of accusations about mishandling charity funds from a polo tournament she organized in 1991, Player is returning the favor by portraying the major as a love-struck buffoon and his daughter as an adulteress who unwittingly shared Wyatt with other women and supported her father's infidelities.
The Palace, of course, has remained mum about the book, but royal watchers predict that—embroidered or not—Player's tale will undermine Fergie's quiet campaign to remake herself as a sober do-gooder eligible, perhaps, for a reconciliation with Prince Andrew. By detailing her trysts with the major at the Yorks' home and alleging that Fergie was sexually besotted with Wyatt in 1991, Player has neatly sabotaged the woman who was once her confidante. "This could not have come at a worse time for Sarah," a friend told London's Daily Express. "She is devastated."
On Feb. 5, the major reportedly phoned his daughter in Altenmarkt, Austria, where she was handing out prizes at races sponsored by a sports association, to warn her about Player's revelations. At the awards ceremony that day, she was "close to tears," in the words of one observer. In the weeks following, she has kept an atypically low profile.
Prince Charles's polo manager since 1972, Major Ferguson, 61. is said to be fearful for his job, as well as for his 16-year marriage. Although the Prince stood by him in both 1988, when it was revealed that he had visited a London massage parlor, and 1992, when tabloids exposed his affair with Player, some believe that the beleaguered Charles may now want to avoid further embarrassment to the royal family. "Angry and ashamed," according to friends, Ferguson's second wife, Susan, 46, who lives with him in Hampshire with their children, Andrew, 15, Alice, 11, and Eliza, 6, is said to be considering a divorce. Though Susan, too, supported him through previous scandals, Player's stories about aborting the major's baby in 1991 and acting as Fergie's honorary lady-in-waiting while bunking with the major on two royal trips outside Britain may have taken their toll. "I'm not sure she can ever truly forgive him," a friend told the Dally Mirror.
For her part, Player says she meant no harm. Nor, she says, was she spurred by greed, though Fleet Street has made much of her string of failed businesses and has portrayed her, in the words of an ex-boyfriend, as "a schemer who would do anything for money." "I did the book to clear my name," she insists. " I haven't done it for revenge. [But] in order to tell the truth, I've had to tell the whole story."
The Sussex-born Player (whose father, Alan Black, once headed a frozen-foods company) had a reputation as a determined social climber by November 1990, when she met Major Ferguson while organizing the first International Ladies Polo Tournament at the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club. Separated from her husband and business partner, James Player (whom she did not divorce until this year), Lesley was struggling to keep her small employment agency afloat. Finding the major "a very strong shoulder to lean on," she gave in to his impassioned advances. When Ferguson introduced her to his daughter Sarah in April 1991, Player says, she had no idea that Fergie was involved with Steve Wyatt—the 37-year-old boule-vardier who had seduced Player a month earlier.
By Player's account, it was the Fergusons' eventual disloyalty that led to her break with father and daughter. When the British press claimed that Player had misrepresented herself as part of Fergie's entourage and charged that she had diverted funds from her charity polo tournament—an accusation of which she has since been cleared—she says she was dropped by both Fergusons despite her pleas for help. "They walked away from me," she says. "I became a social outcast." More than that, she maintains that the newspaper accounts impugned her character, resulting in the withdrawal of sponsors for a second polo tournament she was launching and forcing her to shut down a children's clothing business.
Now living in a modest London flat with fiancé Tony Ellis, a hulking 30-year-old ex-Royal Marine, Player claims that she wishes only the best for Major Ron and the errant Duchess. "I really admire the royal family," she says. "I support them, and I don't want them to take any more knocks. If anything, perhaps this book can help open up a better understanding of [their problems]—how hard it is for them to get into the real world, and how careful they have to be."
TERRY SMITH in London
- Terry Smith.