Like Mother, Like Daughter? Fergie's Sis Seems to Find Love with the Proper Polo Player

updated 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

On a lonely cattle station in the arid Australian outback, a rawboned rancher lies on his lonely bed, staring at the ceiling and pining for his lost love. His wife, a wellborn Englishwoman and the sister of a duchess, had come here with him as a 19-year-old bride. But just a few weeks ago, bored with the isolated life of the cattle station, she left—and is reportedly romancing a polo player nine years her junior. The lonely rancher broods about his wife's attempt to spirit his children out of the country—with the seeming cooperation of her mother and royal sister. And, if rumors are to be believed, his wife's young boyfriend is not the first—he's not even the first polo player.

All of this may sound like some bad parody of life in the colonies—White Mischief, say, crossed with A Town Like Alice—but it isn't. The lean outrider immobilized by grief is Alex Makim, 38, formerly happy husband of Jane Ferguson Makim, 31, older sister of Sarah, Duchess of York. The breakup of their marriage—and speculation about Fergie's role in encouraging it—has become a front-page scandal, both in Australia and back home in Mother England.

The Australian press—helped along by generous quotes from Alex's mother—is presenting the story as that of an honest local lad wronged by an aristocratic hussy and her scheming, toffee-nosed female relatives. Jane is denying all rumors of dalliance. And even Alex's family admits that life on the ranch is so boring that one might be tempted to seek diversion.

Alex and Jane met when she was 15 and he was working as a stablehand at Maj. Ronald Ferguson's farm in Dummer, Hampshire, in exchange for polo lessons. At the time, intimates say, young Jane was still traumatized by her mother's elopement with Hector Barrantes, a debonair Argentine and (the family pattern begins to emerge) a polo player. When Alex and Jane married four years later, in 1976, Fergie, then 17, was a bridesmaid.

The young couple moved to Wilga Warrina, the Makim family's 9,000-acre ranch near North Star, a one-kangaroo town on the Queensland-New South Wales border. In an area where temperatures often hit 120 degrees, their house has no air-conditioning and no indoor toilet. It seemed hardly the environment for the long-haired Englishwoman with the upper-crust accent, yet Jane adapted. Once, she said, "It's the man who's important, not the place."

According to friends, it was two years ago, around the time of Fergie's wedding to Prince Andrew, that the first cracks began to appear in the Makim marriage. "Alex is from typically Australian macho stock," says one insider. "He detests the British class system." He was, however, enraged at not being invited to Andy's bachelor party.

After her sister's wedding, Jane became a bit of a celebrity in Australia. "I think it turned her head," says one source. "She suddenly realized that there's more to life than sitting in the outback." The Makims became more involved in the social life of the international polo set, and the degree of Jane's involvement is a matter of speculation. "Jane was not very subtle in chatting up some of the polo players who passed through," says a member of Alex's family. "She was too friendly with far too many." The Aussie tabloids have since linked Jane with two Argentine players, Cesar Ruiz Guinazu and Horacio Lanusse.

The final rift in the Makim marriage took place during Andy and Fergie's official visit to Australia last month. After the business part of the visit ended on Oct. 7, Jane joined Fergie and their mother, Susan Barrantes, on an island off the Great Barrier Reef. There, insiders say, the details of her break with Alex—and of getting custody of the children, Seamus, 7, and Ayesha, 2—were ironed out by the Ferguson women.

The three met Alex in Townsville on the North Queensland coast at the end of their four-day vacation. There, Jane broke the news to him. "Alex was totally devastated," his mother said. Jane also told Alex that she, her mum and the kids were planning to fly to Buenos Aires. Alex promptly went to Family Court in Townsville and got an injunction giving him temporary custody.

Alex now has the children back at North Star. Meanwhile, Jane has rented a house in a fashionable Sydney suburb, close to the home of Charles and Eva Curran, a wealthy couple who have befriended her during the breakup. The Australian papers are speculating that the Currans' 22-year-old son, Joe, is the new love of Jane's life.

He is, after all, a polo player.

—Michael Neill, and Terry Smith in London

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