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07.19.11

The Unflappable Wendi Deng Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch’s third wife, Wendi Deng, thrust herself into the world spotlight when she smacked down a pie-throwing activist during Tuesday’s parliamentary hearings. But who is the woman behind the man under fire? Melinda Liu reports.

Don’t mess with Wendi Deng, Murdoch’s 43-year-old Chinese-born wife. For most of today’s hearing, Wendi sat demurely behind her husband, appropriately loyal and supportive, her salmon-colored jacket and royal blue blouse standing out in a sea of sober charcoal gray. But those who know Wendi were not surprised to see her leap into action to defend her man. When a man in a checkered shirt burst into the room—triggering alarm but seeming to paralyze many onlookers—and slammed a foam pie over Rupert Murdoch’s face, it was his third wife—who was a volleyball player in her youth—who went on the offensive. Wendi lunged toward the attacker, pushing down a gray-clad woman in the way with her left hand and using her right arm to smack the guy on the top of his head.

If Wendi stole the show, it was a performance for which she could have been rehearsing all her life. Wendi might appear willowy and demure, but she’s also tall—at least 5 foot 10—and extremely tough. She was born in the nondescript city of Xuzhou in coastal Jiangsu province in China in 1968. That was a time of tumult and ugliness during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when radical Red Guards persecuted intellectuals and “capitalist roaders” in bloody “criticism sessions” that sometimes ended in death. In fact, Wendi’s Chinese name—Wen Di (“Cultural Enlightenment”)—was not the name she was born with. At first, befitting the political environment at the time, her parents named her Wen Ge, meaning “Cultural Revolution,” and it’s a testament to the turmoil and struggle that swirled through Chinese society during her childhood.

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Wendi Deng and Rupert Murdoch in 2009 (Evan Agostini / AP Photo)

Her father was a factory manager and engineer who was not particularly powerful or wealthy but a loyal Communist Party member nevertheless. With her parents, three sisters, and brother, Wendi lived in a modest three-room home. She wasn’t especially distinguished at school, although she was an enthusiastic volleyball player, adept enough to become a member of the junior city team. All of which may explain the ease and speed with which she smacked down Rupert’s attacker in today’s hearing, and the adroit way in which she swept aside anyone who stood between her and her target.

While today’s performance could well be seen as the most important “slam dunk” of her life, Wendi has always been proactive and ambitious. When her family relocated to Guangzhou in southern China, she changed her name to Wen Di, enrolled in medical school but quit, and then befriended an American family, the Cherrys. Like her own father, Jake Cherry was a factory manager and an engineer. Wendi learned English from him and his wife, Joyce. Their friendship grew and the Cherrys agreed to sponsor the 19-year-old Chinese woman to come to the U.S. for undergrad courses at California State University in Northridge. There Wendi lived with the Cherrys, sometimes sharing a room with their young daughter. She eventually moved out, and two years later, in 1990, married Jake, who by that time had divorced Joyce. After a marriage that lasted long enough for Wendi to obtain her U.S. green card, Wendi divorced Jake, who is three decades her senior. (Jake had discovered she was having an affair with a younger man, David Wolf, whom Wendi later married but later divorced as well.)

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After graduating from Yale in 1996, she landed an internship with Star TV in Hong Kong, the centerpiece of Murdoch’s operations in Greater China. That brought her into the orbit of the legendary media mogul who would become her third husband. The following year Wendi crashed the annual Star TV gala dinner where she met Rupert in an encounter that was apparently as memorable as it was brief (less than a minute, according to Hong Kong lore). You might say that the rest is history. Now Wendi is playing the role of devoted mother to her and Rupert’s two young children, of film producer, and of loyal wife.

But Mrs. M is capable of doing much more than just passively standing by her man in his moment of crisis. As today’s drama demonstrated, Wendi Deng is quite ready to lash out with her well-manicured nails when she feels her interests are threatened. We may hear—or see—more of the woman named after the Cultural Revolution before this Murdoch saga concludes.