LONDON – When Rupert Murdoch sat before a British House of Commons select committee in July 2011, Wendi Deng appeared the very picture of a supportive spouse. Dressed in a pink Chanel jacket and black pencil skirt, she poured the then 80-year-old’s water for him, lovingly stroked his back and quietly reminded him to calm down when he began slapping the table to make his point.
Most impressively of all, the former volleyball player leapt out of her seat with athletic speed to administer a fierce right-handed spike to the protesting comedian, Jonnie Marbles, who had rammed a foam pie into the octogenarian’s face. Having dispatched the assailant, she then carefully cleaned the remnants of the pie from her husband’s suit. As an advertisement for a loyal and dutiful wife, it could hardly have been improved had she stood up and sung “Stand by Your Man.”
But according to a damning feature in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, the marriage was already coming apart. Behind the scenes, it argues, Deng had become hypercritical and aggressive toward Murdoch. As one friend is quoted as saying, she “would insult him, insult staff, scream, bark orders.”
The magazine also alleges that she conducted a number of friendships behind the media baron’s back, including with Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google. And it suggests that Deng became infatuated with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who visited her several times and in several locations in America and London when Murdoch was not present. The rumor of an affair between Blair and Deng surfaced last year, following Murdoch’s divorce from Deng. It was instantly dismissed by Blair, who is godfather to Deng’s and Murdoch’s 12-year-old daughter, Grace. But Murdoch also let it be known that he would have no further dealings with the former prime minister.
What adds a certain verisimilitude to the latest claim of a crush on Blair is the publication of a note, apparently written by Deng, in which she rhapsodizes about Blair like a gushing schoolgirl. “Oh, shit, oh, shit,” she wrote. “Whatever why I’m so missing Tony. Because he is so charming and his clothes are so good. He has such good body and he has really really good legs Butt . . . And he is slim tall and good skin.” She also says that she loves his power on stage, as though he were a rock star and she a star-struck groupie.
Two major questions arise from this note. The first, obviously, is whether that “Butt . . .” is a misspelled preposition at the beginning of an uncompleted sentence or a reference to this nation’s one-time leader’s backside. The second is where did it come from and who leaked it to Vanity Fair? The answers may never be known, but it seems clear that the source of the note is no friend of Deng. For the portrait the magazine paints is of a calculating and ruthless user of men who has employed her sexual capital to fulfill an incendiary ambition to get ahead. While various “friends” and acquaintances describe her as gauche and ill-tempered, she is held up as a role model for the acquisitive Chinese yuppies known as “Shanghai girls.”
Is it an accurate character study or a vindictive hatchet job playing on racist and sexist stereotypes? There are voices that come to her aid, but they tend to sound like PR-scripted statements rather than heartfelt testaments. Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg says she is “a fantastic woman and a great mother” and Nicole Kidman adds: “Wendi is all about friendship between women.” Perhaps, but the insistent message is that those friendships work better when the women are not married to men to whom Deng has taken a fancy.
Wendi Deng was born Deng Wen Ge, which means “cultural revolution,” and grew up in the Chinese industrial city of Xuzhou. It was a common name at the time — 1968 — intended to signify her parents’ adherence to Maoist principles. But in many ways Deng has lived up to her birth name, for her story is one of an extraordinarily dramatic cultural change.
Her father was manager of an engineering factory, a position that made the Dengs slightly better off than average, which is to say very poor by Western standards. She lived with her parents, three siblings and an aged aunt in a three-bedroom flat. Despite the cramped conditions, she worked ferociously hard, spurred on by a prototype “Tiger mother.”
“My parents were so tough,” she said in an interview with Vogue, “that in the summer when everyone was on vacation, I had to study the whole textbook for the next year so I would be ahead in class.”
An old schoolfriend recalls that Deng would be up at 3 a.m. studying English, the language that she hoped would be her passport out of Xuzhou.
In her late teens, she attended a medical school in Guangzhou, where she met Jake Cherry — a 50-year-old American middle manager, overseeing a freezer factory — and his wife, Joyce. The Cherrys befriended the 19-year-old and Joyce helped her apply for a university in the U.S. The following year, she moved into the Cherrys’ San Fernando Valley home, sharing a room with their 5-year-old daughter.
Within two years, Cherry had left his wife and married Deng. And less than three years after that, shortly after Deng got her green card, the couple were divorced. In reality, just a few months after marrying Cherry, Deng had taken up with another man, this time one in his mid-20s, whom she would soon leave “deeply wounded.”
This section of Deng’s biography was said to be unknown to Murdoch when he embarked on his third marriage in 1999, although it’s hard to believe that a man of his means didn’t bother running a background check. In any case, the details were shared with the world the following year, when the story appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Despite his best effort, Murdoch was unable to prevent publication, which may be one of the reasons he bought the newspaper seven years later.
Deng had moved from California to take an MBA at Yale School of Management, from where she landed an internship at Star TV, the Hong Kong station then owned by Murdoch’s News Corp. It was there, in 1997, that Deng first met Murdoch, who had flown in to address the staff. Legend has it that during a sycophantic Q&A session, the young Deng broke ranks and put a critical question to one of the most successful businessmen in the world: “Why is your business strategy in China so bad?” It wasn’t long before Murdoch had left Anna, his wife of 32 years, for Deng, a woman who was 37 years his junior. Deng later told an interviewer on Chinese TV that she initially rejected Murdoch’s affections, explaining that if the relationship failed, she would lose her job and everything. “Don’t worry,” she said Murdoch replied. “I will marry you.”
In the space of a decade, Deng had gone from impoverished obscurity to being the wife of a world-renowned multibillionaire. A minutely small number of people would have the confidence to attempt that transition and an even smaller number could then flourish in the company of the superrich and globally famous. But Deng did.
The couple moved into a $44 million apartment in Fifth Avenue, said to be the most expensive in New York, and she set about entertaining a crowd that included people such as David Geffen, Bono and Fox co-founder Barry Diller, restyling Murdoch in more casual clothes and dyed hair and encouraging him to spend his money more freely.
She told Murdoch’s biographer, Michael Wolff, that Murdoch was worried about the extravagance of buying a new yacht. “His whole family like this,” she jokingly complained. “They so cheap.” She also advised Murdoch on business in China, had two children, ran several households, networked furiously and got involved in the worlds of fashion, film and art. A friend who went on holiday with the Murdochs said that Deng had become”obsessed” with “social status and spending and a billionaire’s lifestyle.”
In other words, she was acting like someone who was openly interested in wealth and social position. But this is hardly a revelation. Murdoch had been married to a woman, Anna, who liked to keep a low profile. And he left her. What, to paraphrase the classic Mrs. Merton question, did he think attracted the beautiful young Deng to an aging billionaire? Although there are several fresh details in the Vanity Fair feature, it’s a very old story and one immortalized in the 19th-century novel with which the magazine shares its name. If Deng is a 21st-century Becky Sharp, we should recall that for all her cynicism, Thackeray’s heroine also possessed an indomitable spirit. She may no longer be standing by her man, but Wendi Deng will certainly survive.