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Duchess of York charms Yanks, has a royal time


Washington -- Separated from her husband, raising two young daughters and now evicted from her rented digs -- what's a duchess to do?

"So, I'm on my own. So, that's great. I'm all right, Jack," the Duchess of York said sportingly enough yesterday.

Phew! One less worry -- now we can get back to fretting about poor Diana.

The once and current Sarah Ferguson is still the merriest wife of Windsor. Oh, sure, she's no longer on the royal payroll, having separated from Prince Andrew some two years ago. And, yes, her landlord has given her one month to leave her rented, six-bedroom, $1.4 million house near Windsor Castle, where, in one of the most egregious cases of the rich getting richer, oil recently has been discovered.

"Pity it's not under my rented house," the duchess said with a laugh yesterday during a luncheon speech at the National Press Club.

The red-headed duchess charmed her audience of several hundred, speaking about her charitable work, giving a few, discreet glimpses into royal life, fending off questions about rumors that she will soon reconcile with Prince Andrew and refusing to cast any aspersions on her increasingly embattled in-laws.

"We take every day as we play it," she said of Prince Andrew, whom she also called "my most favorite" royal. "That's very, very private for me and my husband."

She did, however, say she'd advise her own daughters to take things slowly before getting married. "Get to know them first," she said. "Live with them a bit."

Except for the questions about her own marriage and the crumbling monarchy, she seemed rather open and relaxed -- jolly, even -- at least compared to her usually pinched-faced in-laws. Dressed in a double-breasted, short-skirted gray suit that matched her eyes, the duchess is prettier in person than her pictures, upholding the English reputation for beautiful complexions.

Perhaps it's the locale -- the duchess had nothing but praise for the U.S., and a couple of darts for her own country, where she's not always been treated as kindly.

"I like the American people because they're nice to me, which makes a big difference," she said. "I think I could have been an American in my last life.

"I just love the way you're really positive people," she added. "I found in Great Britain, someone like me, who is very spontaneous, extremely opinionated, very pushy -- they found me a bit too much. Here in America, you treat people like human beings."

She joked that she already knew what the headlines in Britain would be: " 'Fergie Flops in Washington.' No, 'Freeloading, Funloving Fergie Flops in Washington,' " she amended.

For all the notoriety that she's drawn -- who could forget the pictures of her being nuzzled, head to toe, by "financial adviser" John Bryan? -- what most "bugs" her is the "rubbish" that she's become a millionaire with her "Budgie" children's books and toys. She has been criticized in Great Britain for her money-making ventures.

"The facts are, I'm a separated mother of two children. I'm largely responsible for the finances of my family," the duchess said. "A lot of my time has to be occupied in commercial work."

Later in the day, the duchess visited the FAO Schwarz store in Georgetown Park to accept donations to her newest charity, Chances for Children, which will be based in New York. She said she confines her charity work to causes she can "relate to and be passionate about": meaning Lou Gehrig's disease, which killed a close colleague from her days working in a publishing house, and children, particularly teen-agers. "I had a very difficult time at that age. Not only was I tall and fatter than I am now, I was a teen--ager and a redhead."

The duchess seems a devoted mother, talking about how she's taught daughters Beatrice and Eugenie three levels of table manners, A, B, C. "I'm 'C,' granny is 'A,' " she said with a laugh, going on to note that the British school system is so strict, she tells her children, "when you're with mummy, you can just relax."

Touring FAO Schwarz, she spotted two potential Christmas presents, some gold Barbie shoes and a Barbie makeup kit. "I've got a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old, so it's Barbie-mania," she said.

She touched a bit on her well publicized travails of marrying into the royal family. "There I was at the palace, wandering around without a compass, no fixed sense of what to do," she said.

She had kind words for the queen, who allowed her access to the royal archives, where she's become entranced with the stories of Queen Victoria and now Queen Mary. "I'm fascinated by the history of how these ladies managed," she said.

Her own, tabloid-filled present has been none too easy. "This has been a time of real soul searching," the duchess said.

"It is a very long and arduous path. The path I've followed has not been as straight and narrow as it might have been," she said, acknowledging the understatement with a chuckle. "However, I've been given a second chance in my life."

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