TIGER WIFE or Trophy wife? Slam-down Sister or caring partner doing a Tammy Wynette? New York socialite or about-to-be global media mogul?
When Wendi Deng soared on Tuesday, 42 and pretty-in-pink, left across our TV screens to clobber the idiot cream-pieing her struggling octogenarian billionaire husband, my first thought was of Messrs Wang Chongsheng and Xie Qidong, two hale and delightful old men retired in the central Chinese city of Xuzhou, where Wendi grew up as Deng Weng Ge, or “Cultural Revolution Deng” as was a parent’s political imperative of those dark Maoist days.
Wendi Deng’s middle school volleyball team in Xuzhou, China, early 1980s. She is in the middle of the back row.
Mr Wang was Wendi’s volleyball coach at Xuzhou’s No 1 Middle School, and Mr Qie her academic supervisor. Wang taught her volleyball, and rather too well for the scholarly Qie’s taste. Both men can be seen in this slideshow.) “She lagged behind other students because of playing volleyball,” he complained when I met him in early 2007. Xie persuaded Wendi to give up volleyball and focus on university entry exams. “Because she had good health, she could stay very late at night to make up her study,” he says. “She has a struggling spirit and made big progress. I also would say she is smart.” Giving succour to those of us who wonder what use high school ever is for later life, it seems that Wendi at least retained Wang’s ability to execute an Olympic medal-winning spike over the net.
It may well be a spike worth billions. Wendi has never been the most favorite member of the Murdoch family among the clan itself since Rupert, double her age, took her as his third wife in 1999. Indeed, after getting over the shock that their Dad had left their sainted mother Anna after 32 years, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James Murdoch were relieved to read, shortly after he married Wendi, Murdoch’s remarks to an interviewer that Wendi’s job was “as a home decorator,” that she was not “some business genius about to take over News.”
“She’s intelligent,” he charitably observed, “but she’s not going to do that, I assure you.” (Wendi’s friends were incensed. “She didn’t marry him to sit at home and be a society wife,” said one.) And indeed, there was an unseemly family scrap over succession though 2006, ending in Rupert handing each of his new family a silencing $100 million in (now much-reduced) News Corp stock.
But after her star turn in London this week, Wendi suddenly looms much larger in a post-Rupert News Corp particularly if, as many predict, son James falls victim to the phone-hacking scandal. Not that a well-aimed volleyball spike does a media mogul make. But Wendi’s intervention distracted from a grilling that was not going well for the Murdochs. And she will be rewarded, her family stock higher than it’s ever been after her husband was sympathetically transformed from scheming evil genius to doddering old duffer. As the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson revealed, one of the battery of their grim-faced lawyers ranged behind Rupert and James, supposedly mumbled that the pie attack aftermath was “very good” for the cause.
So, how influential is she in the Murdoch oeuvre? When I fatefully profiled her in 2007, journeying through her remarkable Becky Sharp-like journey from the anonymous hardscrabble of Xuzhou to the bed of the world’s most influential media mogul, the answer seemed to be “cosmetic,” and not as much as she’d like. Rupert met and wooed her – or her him, depending who you talk to – when she was a freshly-interned sales executive at his Hong Kong-based Star TV operation. Once married, he got groovy under her youthful influence; stepping out from their Soho (!?) loft in metropolitan black and dyed hair, working out in gyms, touting her vitamin-smoothie-and-salad regime and making more society appearances that his Calvinist Scottish Presbyterian ancestors would approve. Her role was comfort and companionship. Her best friend Kathy Freston, wife of Sumner Redstone’s former aide Tom, told me “Rupert is lighter and happier since knowing her. He lights up when she walks in the room.”
Her personal politics are to the left of his, but that seems more because she’s constantly reminded by society friends how much they hate Fox News. She is said to have pressured Rupert to tone down his shrillness and, if that is so, it hasn’t much worked. But Wendi is no political animal like her husband. She has evinced no particular interest in Chinese affairs, no outrage at Tiananmen or Tibet. When Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, there was no swelling of the patriotic mainland heart. She was partying at a Hong Kong club favored by well-heeled expatriates.
A Star colleague described her as “a delightful charmer”, and very popular with the male expatriate staff. “She loved that she worked for a big, multinational, non-Chinese company in China,” recalls one colleague. “She was ambitious, sure, but not in the way that ‘I’m going to write a killer business plan myself and make it work and be recognized for making it work’; she was ambitious in the way that ‘I’m going to meet this person and schmooze this person.’ She took advantage of people’s naiveté and niceness,” the executive says. “And she totally got credit for it. She presents this stuff to the bosses, and her charming self, and then she starts jetting off. If Rupert fell in love with her because of her Excel-spreadsheet business plans, then he should’ve married me.”
What was clear as I journeyed through Wendi’s life in 2007—her humble Xuzhou childhood, college life in the U.S. and her first tumultuous marriage and then Star where she first met Rupert—is that if he married her because she could deliver China’s boundless riches, he married the wrong woman. Wendi is no “princeling” as the influential children of China’s Communist Party elite are known, and how gormless Australian executives at Star imagined her. Teacher Xie knew the Dengs well, and said that Wendi’s father was just a medium-level party official at best in the state ironworks in Xuzhou. “One could not be a big guy coming from a machinery works at that time.” Indeed, since Rupert married Wendi, News Corp has gone backwards in China, making blunders and only glacial progress in trying to expand there. She bears a card that simply says “Wendi Deng Murdoch, News Corporation,” hoping that the surname carries the same gravitas with party officials that it implies in the West.
But it doesn’t. Indeed, as his translator, News executives say she – and he – are openly disparaged in meetings in Beijing, in salty remarks that she doesn’t translate for her husband. More recently, however, she seems to have embraced more of a consigliere role, coming as the couple moved uptown to New York’s more stately upper east side.
So what now, post Johnny Marbles? As News crumbles under a legal welter to threaten the dynasty, streetsmarts like hers seem sorely needed. And Wendi is one of the few in the Murdoch circle untainted by the phone-hacking scandal or corporate governance questions. She has been increasingly cut into the Murdoch pie and, from what I know of her, if the seemingly inevitable carve-up of a company unloved by many of its investors occurs, she’ll perhaps face the choice of becoming a Dewi Sukarno-like New York social figure, or demanding – and getting – a place at the dynastic table for her and her two children. I’d bet on the latter.