Friends say Wendi Deng Murdoch's billions have not changed her, though she now networks in powerful social circles. At the White House in 2011. (Getty Images/Brendan Smialowski)
By Amy Chozick
If anyone is qualified to give advice on taking criticism, it's Wendi Deng Murdoch.
Since the couple wed in 1999, Mrs. Murdoch, the third wife of Rupert Murdoch and 38 years his junior, has been viewed with suspicion and skepticism. At best, she was described as a "trophy wife" and at worst a "gold digger."
Lately, the intricate narrative of how Deng Wen Di from Jiangsu province in eastern China became Wendi Murdoch of the Rockefeller triplex in Manhattan (and other homes in Beverly Hills and Carmel, California; London; Cavan, South Australia; and Beijing) has taken another turn.
Even as her husband's company, News Corporation, faces scrutiny over a phone-hacking scandal at its British newspapers, Mrs. Murdoch, 43, has emerged with her own career and has immersed herself in a social circle that includes David Geffen, Larry Ellison, Tony Blair, Nicole Kidman and Bono, one that is often free of her husband's presence.
Her first film, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," based on the best-selling book and produced with Florence Sloan, the Chinese wife of the former MGM studio chief Harry E. Sloan, came out in 2011. The pair are close to signing a deal with Sony Pictures to distribute their second movie based on the memoir "Journey of a Thousand Miles," by the Chinese pianist Lang Lang.
Mrs. Murdoch declined to be interviewed, but many of her friends were willing to discuss Mrs. Murdoch's new and, they say, more accurate public persona, but friends describe someone who is a world-class networker, collecting powerful friends and brokering connections. She hosts dinner parties with powerful women and book parties for friends. When Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, visited Beijing in 2009, Mrs. Murdoch organized a party.
In May 2011, when Hugh Jackman, a close friend who made a cameo in "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," was in early performances of his one-man show in San Francisco, the project was largely a low-profile one. "As a surprise Wendi flew in with about a dozen of the most influential people in the business," Mr. Jackman wrote in an e-mail. "She is the best publicist anyone could ever have." The show later moved to Broadway.
The third daughter of a Guangzhou factory director, Mrs. Murdoch moved to the United States and got a job at the Sichuan Garden restaurant in Westwood, California, for $20 a day. She took night classes, got accepted by an Ivy League school, entered the media business and eventually found herself holding dinner parties at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Her friends like to talk about how money has not changed the brash, unfiltered, funny woman Mr. Murdoch first met at Star TV in Hong Kong. But in other ways, Mr. Murdoch's billions have significantly transformed her. Mrs. Murdoch quickly embraced the trappings of great wealth. She traveled with her husband, and shopped for wares to stock her new homes. In addition to their loft in Manhattan, the Murdochs transformed an old hutong in Beijing into a courtyard oasis decorated with Chinese art.
She tried to find a place for herself in the family business, brokering meetings in China and weighing in on My Space's Chinese operations.
"In the very early days of the marriage she was somewhat subordinate, but that pretty quickly changed," said Andrew Butcher, a former News Corporation spokesman.
There were bumps. The first came in 2000, when The Wall Street Journal, not yet owned by News Corporation, published a front-page article about her. It described how, in 1988 at age 19, she had moved to Los Angeles with a married couple, Jake and Joyce Cherry, to learn English. Mr. Cherry and Wendi Deng had an affair, according to the article, and she married him in 1990. The marriage lasted two years seven months, according to court records. In that time, she got a green card and enrolled at California State University, Northridge.
Mr. Murdoch was furious, according to people close to News Corporation, even though it was the kind of article he would have loved - had it been in one of his newspapers and about someone else's third wife.
As her daughters with Mr. Murdoch, Grace, 10, and Chloe, 8, get older, she has taken on a wide range of professional endeavors, including the film business. Friends say she has no interest in taking over News Corporation.
In recent months, the Murdochs have grown to live largely separate lives, with Mr. Murdoch dealing with the scandal unfolding in Britain. He rarely accompanies her to the many charitable events and parties she attends, partly because he is 81 and partly to avoid the news media, said several people close to the couple. Mrs. Murdoch still regularly (and humorously) drops references to how far she has come.
Like last year when she and Ariana Huffington hosted a party at Ms. Huffington's Manhattan apartment to celebrate Mrs. Freston's newest weight-loss book,the guests included one who was vegetarian, and the caterers had assembled a meatless spread into elaborate hors d'oeuvres.
Arianna Huffington recalled a toast Mrs. Murdoch once gave at a party for Kathy Freston, a self-help author. "She said, 'I grew up so poor in China that one day I aspired to have meat regularly,'" Mrs. Huffington said. "'Now that I can have meat three times a day, Kathy tells us we can't have any meat at all.'"