Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Royal Profile: Susan Barrantes

Best known as the mother of Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, she was part of a family that can trace their ancestry back to 1557.

Born on June 9, 1937 in Bramcote Hills Notthingham, Susan Mary Wright was the youngest of three daughters of FitzHerbert Wright, a former lieutenant in the 15th/19th Hussars and later a company director. Her mother Doreen Wingfield was the only daughter of the 8th Viscount Powerscourt. Her brother Bryan was for a time the secretary of the Dorchester Club; her elder sister Brigid married Julian Salmond, son of Marshal of the RAF Sir John Salmond; her younger sister Davina married Sir Richard Boughey, Bt.

The Wright family trace their ancestry back to John Wright, of Stowmarket, Suffolk, in 1557. Another ancestor, also John Wright, was imprisoned for eight years for raising a company in a regiment of horse in the Parliamentary cause in 1643. Later, the family moved to Nottingham, where they became principal proprietors of the Butterley Works. Susan's grandfather settled at Yeldersley Hall, Derbyshire.

Susan's childhood interests consisted of riding side-saddle and working hunter classes, where she won numerous prizes. After school, she went through secretarial college and undertook the debutante season at the age of 17 being presented to the Queen.

It was at a dance that she met her first husband, Ronald Ferguson, then serving in the Life Guards. He was at once impressed: she was lively and vivacious, and shared his equestrian interests. She had also, he said, "a touch of Irish wildness about her, and she was a country girl, having been brought up in Lincolnshire and at her grandfather's castle [Powerscourt] in County Wicklow". Moreover, he explained, "she enjoyed going to polo matches - an essential pre-requisite for a Ferguson girlfriend in those days!"

Her parents, feeling she was too young to marry, sent her to France for a year. But the attachment survived the separation, and Susan married Ronald Ferguson at St Margaret's Westminster, on January 17 1956, with a reception for 600 guests at Claridge's. In the same year she appeared on the cover of Tatler magazine.

They began their married life in London, where Ferguson was stationed at Knightsbridge Barracks, and a few years later moved to a house at Ascot, strategically close to the polo fields of Smith's Lawn and Windsor Castle. The couple would have two daughters: Jane in August 1957 and Sarah, the future Duchess of York, born in October 1959. She later miscarried a daughter, Sophia, after developing pre-eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening condition chiefly characterised by high blood pressure.

In 1968, Ferguson's father died and the family moved to his childhood home, Dummer Down House, a Queen Anne-style farmhouse near Basingstoke. Her interests revolved around horses and she was a keen show jumper. Though the marriage was a happy one in the early years, Ronald Ferguson had an affairs, one of with her best friends. In 1972 she fell in love with a professional polo player from Argentina, Hector Barrantes, whose wife Luisita and unborn child were killed in a car crash near Buenos Aires in February 1972. Barrantes had been a star rugby player and Golden Gloves heavyweight. That summer, Susan decided to leave her family for him which created a society scandal. She was divorced from Ronald Ferguson in May 1974 and married in Barrantes in July 1975, at Chichester, Register Office, England.

She went to live in Argentina, where she and her husband maintained a large ranch at El Pucara, 350 miles south-west of Buenos Aires. There they bred 500 foals for polo, as well as cattle. And no doubt they would have remained there quietly pursuing these interests, had it not been for the marriage of Sarah to Prince Andrew, in July 1986. Thereafter, Sarah's parents and siblings were the focus of intense media attention.

Hector Barrantes fell ill with cancer of the lymph glands and died on August 10, 1990 at the age of 51. Susan experienced finanical difficulties afterwards, having to sell more than half the farm to the polo-playing Australian media magnate Kerry Packer. She gave her first reluctant interview to Hello! magazine in June 1988. She returned to that magazine with a full version of her reminiscences in 1992, and allowed further interviews in subsequent years. In 1997 she wrote the book POLO for which Prince Charles wrote the forward.

On September 19, 1998 she was killed in a car accident and was buried next to her late husband Hector in a vault below her house, next to a polo field on the Argentinian estate.

© Marilyn Braun 2009

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