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.
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.”