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Rupert Murdoch and wife Wendi Deng arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Mortons in West Hollywood March 5, 2006.

Phil McCarten/Reuters/Phil McCarten/Reuters

Since her marriage to Rupert Murdoch in 1999, Wendi Deng has come to play a largely protective role for the octogenarian media potentate. According to press accounts, she closely supervises his diet and fitness regimen.

Just how seriously the Chinese-born former TV executive takes her responsibilities was clear on Tuesday, as the aging tycoon testified before a British parliamentary panel.

When stand-up comic cum civic activist Jonathan May-Bowles, a.k.a. Jonnie Marbles, disrupted the proceedings by attempting to perform the old, vaudevillian, pie-in-the-face routine, Ms. Deng reacted spontaneously, literally leaping to her husband's defence.

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Wearing a tight pink jacket (reminiscent, ironically, of the one worn by Jacqueline Kennedy on the day of John F. Kennedy's assassination), the 42-year-old Ms. Deng - a former amateur volleyball player - made a vicious return of Mr. Marbles's serve, delivering an open-palmed swat to his head. Mr. Murdoch was uninjured, marred only by an unsightly smear of foam on his suit jacket.

Born and raised in China, the daughter of a factory manager (her given Chinese name, Wenge, means "Cultural Revolution"), Ms. Deng is Mr. Murdoch's third wife, and 38 years his junior. They met in 1997 in Hong Kong, where Ms. Deng was a junior executive at Star TV, News Corporation's satellite business.

By then, his marriage to the former Anna Maria Torv - mother of the three Murdoch children, Elisabeth, Lachlan and James, actively involved in the family-controlled public company - was unravelling.

Conferring a reported $1.2-billion settlement upon Anna, Mr. Murdoch married Ms. Deng 17 days after his divorce became final, aboard his 48-metre yacht, the Morning Glory, in New York Harbour.

Ms. Deng, too, has sailed the troubled waters of marital discord.

In 1988, abandoning preliminary medical studies, she moved to California to study economics, graduating near the top of her class. Her student visa was sponsored by an American couple, Jake and Joyce Cherry, whom she'd met in China.

But two years after she arrived, the Cherry marriage came asunder. In 1990, she and Jake Cherry, 30 years her senior, tied the knot. Their union lasted less than a year, amid accusations that Ms. Deng was involved with yet another married man.

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By then she possessed a green card, the coveted admission ticket to America, and enrolled at the prestigious Yale School of Management. She parlayed that into an internship in Hong Kong.

To Mr. Murdoch's existing family (in addition to his three children with Anna, he has a daughter, Prudence, by his first wife, Patricia Booker), Ms. Deng has since contributed another two daughters, Grace (2001) and Chloe (2003).

Their arrival has added another level of complexity to the ultimate disposition of the family's 28.5 per cent stake in News Corporation.

For the moment, the two children by Ms. Deng reap stock dividends but have no voting rights, which are currently divided equally between Mr. Murdoch and his children of his first two marriages.

But the aging oligarch has expressed the desire to bequeath a proportional measure of voting control to the youngest children upon his death. If Mr. Murdoch were to die while Grace and/or Chloe were still minors, some voting power would thus be conferred on Ms. Deng - an eventuality to which the other offspring are said to be opposed.

And as Jonnie Marbles discovered, she is not to be taken lightly.

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