World conquest, though, was far too engaging. “Rupert has never imagined the company without him,” said one News Corp. exec. And anyway, what would Rupert-in-retirement look like? The question struck Lachlan as ridiculous. “He’s never going to be the guy to go play golf or learn a new language or travel. It’s not in his DNA,” Lachlan thought. “He’d be miserable.” Rupert believed it might be worse. “I’d probably die,” he once said.
Rather than retire, Rupert proposed an alternative. Anna has spoken publicly only once, to Australian journalist David Leser. According to unpublished portions of that interview, Anna still recalls Rupert’s simple solution: “Let’s divorce.” In April 1998, Rupert’s Post columnist Liz Smith delivered the news of an “amicable separation”—amicable enough that Anna was to remain on News Corp.’s board.
The separation was, in fact, a mutual idea, but hardly amicable. “I wanted to save my marriage at all costs,” Anna recalls. But Rupert, Anna was sure, had a girlfriend. (Rupert claimed the girlfriend happened after the separation. “It’s a lie,” Anna said.) Rupert, in any case, had moved on. He was no longer interested in Anna. As if to punctuate that thought, he kicked her off the board. “[You’re] an embarrassment to everyone else on the board,” she recalls him saying. She formally resigned in person, walking out in tears, escorted by Lachlan, a fellow director. “You don’t hurt people for your own happiness,” was one of Anna’s parting thoughts.
Rupert met Wendi Deng, tall, attractive, bright, and two years older than Lachlan, in China, the next and perhaps greatest media frontier. Fresh out of Yale School of Management, Wendi, born in China, landed a job at Star TV, Rupert’s Hong Kong–based satellite business. One day, Rupert phoned to say he was on his way to Shanghai. Gary Davey, then-CEO of Star TV, was off in India and recalls scurrying to find someone to accompany Rupert. Wendi was only, at that point, an intern on the business-development team, but she speaks Mandarin (her English is still accented) and knows the system—her father had managed a factory of 20,000 employees for the Communist government. Plus, Wendi is naturally bright, outgoing, enthusiastic. “If she walked into the room, she would know everybody’s name, and they would know who she was really quickly,” says one Yale classmate. She possessed a slightly goofy, mischievous sense of humor—another friend recalls that once, after a long, hilly hike, Wendi insisted on a shortcut home: trespassing through backyards.
At a staff meeting with Rupert in Hong Kong, Wendi’s hand shot in the air. “She was the first person to put her hand up,” remembers one former exec. She asked an intelligent question. “At the end of the session, she came right up to him.”
Rupert likes bright women. “That was a very interesting question. I’d like to talk to you more,” he told her.
Wendi seemed the perfect person to accompany Rupert on his swing through China.
Wendi, it turned out, had also exited a relationship not long ago. Her first husband, Jake Cherry, was another older married man. Wendi had met Jake, his wife, Joyce, and their two kids in China a decade earlier. By Chinese standards, Wendi’s family was upper-middle class. Both her parents are college-educated engineers. The family had a car and a driver and was the first in their community to own a TV. Wendi knew lots of people who attended school in the United States. She wanted to do the same. Perhaps that’s why Wendi wanted English lessons from Joyce.
After a few months, Joyce left to take the kids home; school was starting. Jake remained to finish his job installing factories. Soon, Jake called his wife to suggest they sponsor Wendi in the United States while she attended college. She was an intelligent young woman (about 18 at the time) and full of promise, Jake told his wife.
Wendi lived with Jake and Joyce at their home in La Crescenta, California. She enrolled at California State, Northridge, where she was an outstanding student—“top 1 percent,” says one of her former professors.
“Meanwhile, though, she and my husband were having an affair,” says Joyce.
“None of this is my fault,” Wendi told Joyce. Jake, 30 years older than Wendi, said he loved her. Joyce kicked them out.
Jake and Wendi’s marriage lasted two years and seven months. Jake earned a decent living—$50,000 a year, according to divorce records—though not a lavish one. “She disappeared when he couldn’t provide her graduate school,” Joyce says. Though Jake suggested to the Wall Street Journal that Wendi’s feelings ended the marriage. She told him she couldn’t see him as other than a father figure. Soon, she was off to Yale, where, though outgoing, she was discreet—hardly any of her friends knew that she had been married.