Standing before a glittery crowd at Los Angeles's Century Plaza Hotel on Nov. 4, Britain's Prince Andrew professed amazement at the kiss-kiss, love-ya-babe proceedings. "I'm not used to these sorts of affairs," he said of the gala, which was organized by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Los Angeles to honor director Steven Spielberg. "I've watched with incredulous interest the amount of work—I believe the term is schmoozing—that's been going on."

But if Prince Charles's younger brother was not overly familiar with the term, he proved most adept at the concept. Whether swaying to the beat of the Boys Choir of Harlem in New York City, talking tech with Internet whizzes in Manhattan's Silicon Alley or rubbing elbows with Spielberg, Russell Crowe and Pierce Brosnan at the L.A. fete, Andrew, 40, a.k.a. the Duke of York, seemed eager to work every room he entered during his weeklong visit to the U.S. "I had to pull him away from the crowd so we could start the program," says Terry Lane, president of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, a Harlem-based economic-development group that hosted Andrew on Oct. 30. "He was so engaged in conversations. He has a deep and abiding interest in urban development."

Until recently the duke, fourth in line to the throne, seemed to have few deep and abiding interests outside of golf (a 7 handicap, he has played with Bill Clinton and Sergio Garcia) and his daughters Beatrice, 12, and Eugenie, 10, with ex-wife Sarah Ferguson, 41. Andrew was seen as a "boxy-suited, golf[-club]-swinging, somewhat 'limited' young man," says Tatler magazine editor Geordie Greig, to whom Andrew gave a wide-ranging interview this June.

No longer. After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the Palace saw in the amiable Andrew "a good way of improving the royal family's standing among members of the public," says Peter Archer, royals correspondent for Britain's Press Association. In 1999 the duke carried out 105 royal engagements abroad, up from just 21 four years earlier. Foremost among his new commitments is Full Stop, a child-abuse-prevention campaign Andrew agreed to head in March 1999. Last month he disclosed to a British morning talk show that he himself was once physically disciplined at school, adding that he has never spanked either of his daughters.

The approach of his 40th birthday last Feb. 19 also seemed to spur the then-pudgy prince to get fit, and he began three-day-a-week workouts with Fergie's personal trainer Josh Salzmann, 44. In the months since, he's slimmed down and "looks 100 percent fitter and stronger than a year ago," says a source. And the change isn't just physical. "Suddenly, Andrew has blossomed and matured," says Greig, a pal of the prince's. "He's seen as more intelligent, in a sexy light, and ahead of our times in dealing with his very modern family setup."

Modern indeed. Divorced in 1996 after 10 years of marriage, Andrew and Fergie are, astoundingly, still living together, albeit in separate quarters, in Sunninghill Park, the house built for them as a wedding present by Queen Elizabeth. Although Andrew stays at his Buckingham Palace bachelor pad during the week and Fergie spends most weeks in the U.S., where she is a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers and Wedgwood, the pair often meet on weekends to spend time together with their daughters. (A nanny looks after the girls during the week.) "The arrangement we have now works perfectly well," Andrew has said. "We are not just doing it for the children. We are doing it for our own benefit too."

Not surprisingly, the arrangement has sparked rumors of the couple getting back together, though Prince Philip—no fan of Fergie's—is said to shudder at the thought. Still, the Queen is fond of Fergie, and the Queen Mum seemed to welcome Sarah back into the royal fold last month when she invited the couple to dine with her and Prince Charles at her Scotland home. "I've heard there's a softening on Charles's part," says a source. "They had an extremely happy dinner with lots of goodwill."

So far neither Andrew nor Fergie, who has been dating Italian nobleman Count Gaddo della Gherardesca, seems inclined to take any major steps. "I don't rule remarriage out, and I certainly don't rule it in," he has said. Andrew also seems to be relishing his freedom. In the past year alone, the prince once dubbed "randy Andy" by the British tabloids has alternately been spotted squiring Ghislaine Maxwell, 38, the daughter of the late newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell; public relations consultants Caroline Stanbury, 24, and Emma Gibbs, 33; and South African ex-model Heather Mann, 30. "He loves a good party and being in the company of pretty girls," says Peter Archer.

Even during his three-day visit to the Big Apple Oct. 29-31, he squeezed in some nightlife. Attending a Halloween costume party hosted by model Heidi Klum at the chic Hudson Bar, the teetotaling Andrew sipped bottled water and chatted with Maxwell, who wore a leopard-print jacket and platinum wig, as well as with Donald Trump and his girlfriend, model Melania Knauss. "He's not pretentious," says Trump. "He's a lot of fun to be with." Maxwell seemed to think so too. She and the duke, who have been romantically linked since April, "seemed like coconspirators—talking, laughing and enjoying the party," says one observer. "They were together the entire evening."

Nevertheless, friends say there is nothing serious between the pair. "He's just having fun, and why not?" says an Andrew pal. "Sometimes people get a new lease on life at 40."

Clearly Andrew has signed his with gusto. "He's pursuing a serious agenda at work and a fun agenda at play," says Tatler editor Greig. One of the few royals to hold down a 9-to-5 job, Andrew drives himself to his London office at the Ministry of Defence five days a week, where the Royal Navy commander and onetime helicopter pilot—who saw active duty in 1982 during the Falk-lands War—earns $65,000 a year as an international liaison for the navy. (He also receives $355,000 annually from the Queen to meet official expenses.) And while his primary athletic passion still rests on the links, he recently took on the role of president of Britain's Football Association (British football is known in the U.S. as soccer) in a move to loosen up the Windsors' stuffy image. The new post "is not the opera," says Archer. "It's populism. It's about the people's prince."

The people, of course, will have final say in determining whether Andrew merits that title. (Certainly his magnetic nephew William seems to be offering stiff competition.) Regardless, Andrew "has gained confidence about his role in life," says a friend, who adds, "He is beginning to stand on his own two feet." The duke would seem to agree. "There is a great deal happening in my life at present," he told Royal Insight—a Web site he helped launch—last spring. "I am becoming increasingly convinced that life does, indeed, begin at 40."

Michelle Tauber
Nina Biddle and Simon Perry in London, Eve Heyn in New York City and Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Nina Biddle,
  • Simon Perry,
  • Eve Heyn,
  • Karen Brailsford.