NATTILY DRESSED IN A HOUNDS-tooth blazer and Hermès tie, John Bryan is clearly a man who likes to be liked. Striding into Los Angeles's posh Peninsula Hotel, where he lived briefly last year, he smoothly greets the concierge. Over drinks in the Living Room Lounge, he chats amiably with a reporter about East Coast versus West Coast living. In fact, the only clue that Bryan, better known as the Duchess of York's onetime "financial adviser," may have other things on his mind is his incessant shelling of pistachios. "I'm a real nut nut," he admits.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise that, when asked about the revelations attributed to him on April 28 in the flamboyant London tabloid The News of the World, in a story billed as "John Bryan Tells All" and headlined "I Had Sex With Fergie As She Spoke to Andy on Phone," Bryan falters. "It's undignified to ask those kinds of questions," he says. "I won't allow it." Later, he adds, "I'm not saying they're making anything up."

Windsor-watchers, however, barely blinked when the story hit the stands. The countdown had begun in February, when Bryan and Allan Starkie, his partner in a Frankfurt-based construction firm that collapsed last year, spent three days in Paris, meeting with British publishing executives. Although no deal was announced, Bryan, 40, was said to be eager to cash in on his four-year affair with the Duchess. She had abruptly given him the boot in August, and he was said to be sitting on potentially profitable secrets.

Tawdry or no, the story (the first installment of a two-parter) broke little ground. Its most arresting scene was a lovemaking session during which Fergie took a call from Andrew and, as the action continued, put him on hold to speak to ex-lover Texan Steve Wyatt. The News also reported that Fergie had welcomed a chance to wean herself from Prozac, which curbed her sexual appetite, and that she had spent hours consulting psychics—sharing the juiciest prognostications with the Princess of Wales.

Although the "exclusive" included direct quotes and a new photo of Bryan, Fergie's ex claims that he received "absolutely nothing" from the tabloid. Now a partner in a Los Angeles-based merchant banking and venture capital company called The Watley Group, Bryan did concede that he had spoken to Rupert Murdoch's News International—which publishes The News of the World—after last month's announcement that the Yorks would divorce. "I gave them a large number of quotes, which were, in my mind, for [Murdoch's] Sunday Times," he said, hinting that the material (which he says that he provided gratis) was then diverted to the tabloid. "I regret that those things are published," he said.

Raised with his two older sisters by his father, Tony, 73, a Harvard Business School graduate and former chairman of Copperweld Corp., the University of Texas alumnus is a man familiar with both wealth and scandal. After he was divorced from John's mother, Lida Shock, the elder Bryan wed Houston heiress Josephine Abercrombie (now 70) in 1964. Fourteen years later, he triggered headlines by leaving her for a much younger heiress, Pamela Zauderer (now 50); they divorced in 1988, and Tony has since remarried.

Like Fergie, 36, Bryan is an ambitious bon vivant who can pilot a plane or negotiate a challenging ski slope, and who is eager to revamp his reputation. Reports that he and Starkie, 45, had shopped a tell-all during their trip to Paris, and spilled part of their story to tantalize editors, are untrue, Bryan claims. (Editors who say they met with him scoff at that contention.) Noting that, in February, Starkie had just been released from prison in Germany—where he was held for five months during a police investigation of their company, Oceonics Deutschland, which had amassed a $15 million debt—Bryan claims that his partner had considered writing a "tiny little story" about his sojourn behind bars. Bryan says he went along "to make sure that...my interests were represented...that nothing was published about me or my relationship."

Although he concedes that he "took quite a big hit" on Oceonics, Bryan asserts that no debt could lead him to betray the Duchess. "I would never, ever consider publishing a book about my relationship under any circumstances," he says.

Perhaps. But like Fergie—who is struggling with her own debt (now estimated at $4.6 million)—Bryan is haunted by his financial past. In Germany, prosecutors are investigating allegations that he fraudulently obtained a $1.38 million loan from a Frankfurt bank by using future profits from projects based on Fergie's book, Budgie the Little Helicopter, as collateral. Although Bryan has argued that, as her business partner, he was entitled to 10 percent of her take, German authorities could force him to mount an expensive legal defense, should they press charges.

In any case, the royal family was said to be distressed by the latest slimefest. "Andrew will be desperately hurt and angry," says Brian Hoey, author of 12 books on the Windsors. "Until last week, [he and Fergie] had spoken every day."

On April 29, Fergie herself was in Oklahoma City, where she delivered a $150,000 donation from Chances for Children, her American charity, to Children's Hospital, which treated young victims of last spring's federal building bombing. Calling the fresh scandal "yesterday's news," she told reporters, "What's relevant is the future, and the future of our children."

For all of that, the Duchess was reported to have asked her lawyers to prevent publication of The News installment scheduled for May 5. Even if that tactic succeeds, palace-watchers say that seamier versions of Bryan's tale could surface later. Last week's story, says one veteran, "didn't tell everything Bryan knew—and you can be sure that he knows everything."

MICHELLE GREEN
SHELLEY LEVITT in Los Angeles, LYDIA DENWORTH and SIMON PERRY in London and MAGGIE HALL in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Shelley Levitt,
  • Lydia Denworth,
  • Simon Perry,
  • Maggie Hall.