The Wild Card

updated 10/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Used to be the court jester could get beheaded when he stopped being funny. But the Queen can't even fire the Duke and Duchess of York, though the temptation must grow sorer by the day.

Once a refreshing source of amusement, Fergie has now, at 31, become the worrisome loose cannon in the House of Windsor. Her happy-go-lucky hubby, 30, may be the squirting flower. For a while this year, it seemed that Sarah, as she is seldom called, had mended the meandering ways that had gotten her labeled Duchess of Do-Little, Duchess of Pork and Her Royal Thighness in the British tabloids. She stayed thin during her second pregnancy, made mercy visits to her dying stepfather, Hector Barrantes, and began writing a book on Osborne House, Queen Victoria's Isle of Wight abode.

Then something snapped, and even the most forgiving Fergie apologists lost patience. Soon after Eugenie's birth, the Duchess resumed her prenuptial fast life, partying with an international set possessing more cash than cachet. "Sarah's love of money and the rich is her most major flaw," says a friend. She spent a June weekend on the Peter Brant polo estate in Greenwich, Conn., on the eve of her host's sentencing for tax fraud, though the purpose was to visit Barrantes, who died in August.

If the Yorks have often struck the British public as a pair of heedless hedonists, at least they seemed besotted with each other—a touching assumption not applicable to all Windsor marriages. Fergie's erratic behavior this summer put even that supposition in doubt. Where once she drew fire for leaving baby Beatrice with nannies while she jetted to meet Andrew in foreign ports, now she left her husband at home on shore leave to fly off on a sun-drenched holiday. Reportedly, she flew in the private jet of 30ish Steve Wyatt, unmarried, fun-loving scion of the Texas Wyatts, natural-gas zillionaires. While the British tabs label the relationship with Wyatt "platonic," jet-setting seems a dubious pastime for a mother of two small children who happens to belong to one of the world's most publicly fusty families. Snaps one palace insider: "She's getting away with murder."

Immoderation in all things—even image polishing—seems to be the Yorkian way. Are people doubting Fergie's devotion to domesticity? By way of retort, she and Andy allowed Hello!, a British weekly, to publish a boggling array of pictures of them changing diapers and cuddling Beatrice, 2, and 4-month-old Eugenie. (It was accompanied by a marshmallow Q&A and not one shot of a nanny in the 48 pages.) "Royals turned commoners!" harrumphed the Daily Mail of the access for which the Yorks reportedly pocketed an estimated $500,000. "Tacky house, tacky children's books, tacky interview with a down-market pop mag. Why don't they open a nightclub? Why don't they get into fast food—Fergie-Burgers?"

The media may feel betrayed by the "Duke and Duchess of Yuk" because they initially gave them such a walloping welcome. Sarah was portrayed as a merry cobweb buster in the family's stuffy sanctums, the perfect way to legitimately unload the Queen's rowdy second son. After a plucky performance in the Falklands conflict, helicopter pilot Andy seemed interested mainly in oat-sowing and club-crawling with a string of steamy ladies culminating in former soft-porn star Koo Stark. What well-bred Church of England girl would marry Andrew and put up with him?

When the Prince's wandering eye fell upon Sarah Ferguson in 1985, the nation breathed a collective "Of course!" Though a strapping, worldly wench who loved a good time, Sarah was also a well-connected satellite of the royal set and a childhood playmate of Andy's at the fields where her father is Prince Charles's polo manager. True, she had a past, particularly a three-year relationship with semi-savory race car manager Paddy McNally, but as her own father cheerfully pointed out, who, at age 26, did not?

Soon Fergie's past was overshadowed by her present. While her role is to promote all things British, she bought and borrowed French clothes and tried to hire an American decorator. And, in the first 10 months of 1987, she took 99 vacation days. One paper claimed that in 1989 the Queen told Fergie to get with the program after it was revealed that she had one public engagement on her calendar for the next five months while Princess Anne had 87.

Fergie also seemed to be, if not a gold digger, at least on the financial make. Costs on the contemporary mansion the Yorks are building in Berkshire spiraled from an estimated $3 million to $8.8 million. (Critics variously blasted it as "Southyork" and "a 50-room pizza palace.") She wrote two children's books and suggested the proceeds were going to charity, not mentioning she was keeping the lion's share for herself. She sold an interview to a British paper for $201,600, but part of the fee was withheld when she "forgot" the all-important scoop that she was pregnant with a second child. One source says the Queen stepped in when Fergie threatened to sue for the balance.

Tick-tick-tick-tick. The sound emanating from the Yorks' marriage lately is not reassuring. To be fair, Sarah's had a rough patch. The death of a stepfather and the birth of a second child are events that could stress even the most poised and prudent young woman. But those words, by her own admission, do not describe the Fergster. "I'm too spontaneous," she admitted in Hello!'s photo spectacular, "and I don't think before I act." That was clear in New York City last June, when at a swank dinner party the Duchess, reported Women's Wear Daily, comically knighted her host's dog with a kitchen knife. Mocking the royals is great if you're Spitting Image. If you're royal yourself, the joke, sadly, is on you.

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