Rupert Murdoch's wife Wendi Deng was 'totally blindsided' by his decision to file for divorce, her friends have claimed.
The 82-year-old tycoon is said to have gone to great lengths to be seen to be pursuing his normal schedule as recently as last Tuesday - when he was due to preside at a Los Angeles gala.
However, an acquaintance of the couple says that during Tuesday afternoon Mr Murdoch gave the first clue that 'something was up' when he abruptly cancelled his appearance to honour one of his oldest friends, Fox film studio chairman Jim Gianopulos.
Two days later a tersely worded document was filed at the New York State Supreme Court stating the power couple's 14-year marriage had 'broken down irretrievably'.
'People were talking about nothing else at the gala,' the acquaintance said. 'Rupert was a co-chair of the event but we had no inkling anything was remiss until 4pm that afternoon when an aide called to say he couldn't make it.
'Everyone was gossiping, wondering if he'd been taken ill. Now it makes sense. He was probably with his lawyers putting the finishing touches to the divorce papers.'
After instructing his legal team to settle the case 'quickly and quietly,' the News Corp owner was last night believed to be in seclusion at the couple's Beverly Hills mansion as he worked on his latest business deals.
Later this month he plans to split his £6 billion News Corporation company into separate entertainment and publishing divisions. He also has a long-standing dream of buying Hollywood newspaper, the LA Times.
A servant who answered the phone at his £23 million estate told The Mail on Sunday: 'Mr Murdoch does not wish to speak to the press at this time.'
Some 3,000 miles away, Ms Deng was understood to be at another of the couple's magnificent properties, a Fifth Avenue penthouse overlooking Manhattan's Central Park, acquired for £30 million in 2005.
The phone was picked up by a woman who said Ms Deng was unavailable.
But a friend said: 'She was totally blindsided by this. She says she had no idea it was coming. She's not pretending that they didn't have some pretty big problems. But she never thought Rupert would want to go public and admit the marriage was a big mistake.'
Another close acquaintance, billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump, was as stunned as Ms Deng at the divorce filing. 'I had no idea anything was wrong,' Trump said last night. 'I am friends with both Rupert and Wendi. They are great people. It always seemed a great marriage. I am sad for both of them.'
The daughter of a minor Chinese Communist Party functionary, Ms Deng has been viewed with suspicion since their 1999 marriage by some members of Murdoch's inner circle, including his older children.
They regarded her as a 'trophy wife' and 'gold digger,' according to a scathing article in The New York Times.
She was accused of spending an inordinate amount of time 'social climbing' with her celebrity pals, who include Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman, Bono and Tony and Cherie Blair.
The former Prime Minister was forced to deny internet rumours that he had been romantically involved with Ms Deng. His spokesman issued a categorical denial of the 'untrue and defamatory' charges saying: 'If you are asking if they are having an affair the answer is no.' But the denial failed the quell rumour-mongers who leapt on the use of the spokesman's present tense in issuing the denial.
A source close to Mr Murdoch said: 'He knows the Blair rumours are rubbish. Rupert's far too busy to read rubbish on Twitter.'
In an episode interpreted as demonstrating her love for her husband, Ms Deng protected him from a pie hurled by a protester during his appearance in 2011 at a parliamentary sub committee over the phone hacking scandal.
Privately, however, friends say the marriage has been in dire difficulties for years and the couple were living largely separate lives.
Ms Deng looked after their two daughters, Grace, 11, and Chloe, nine, in New York while Mr Murdoch was away on business trips.
He rarely accompanied her to parties and at a New Year's Eve party two years ago on the Caribbean island of St Bart's, they were reported to have stood, stony-faced, as other revellers embraced.
His biographer, Michael Wolff, said: 'Murdoch had told his oldest son, Lachlan, that he'd concluded that marrying Wendi was a "mistake" - or so Lachlan, along with his siblings never a fan of his father's remarriage, was telling people.
'If you imagined two opposite people, save only for their evident mutual ambition, it might be Rupert and Wendi.'
Another acquaintance recalled a 'frostiness' at a dinner party at which Ms Deng berated him in front of fellow guests. 'Wendi is an Olympian social climber and Rupert was very proud of her in the early days of their marriage,' the acquaintance said.
'But she became snappy towards him and put him down in public and he didn't like that.'
Ms Deng was born Deng Wenge in the northern China industrial city of Shandong, where her father was a machinist at an iron works. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, the family reportedly were sent to a re-education camp, where she planted rice and laboured in the fields. She changed her name to Wendi as a teenager.
In her late teens, she was introduced to Jake Cherry, a 50-year-old American businessman, and his wife, Joyce, 42. She wanted to study in America and the couple agreed to sponsor her for a visa. She moved into their Los Angeles home, where she shared a bedroom with their five year old daughter and - Joyce claimed - began an affair with Jake.
He married Ms Deng in 1990. They divorced two years later, shortly after she obtained a green card residency permit, allowing her to work and live permanently in the States. 'I do not care about that stuff any more - it is all such a long time ago,' Joyce told The Mail on Sunday.
Ms Deng completed an MBA at Yale University and landed her first job at Star TV in Hong Kong, owned by Mr Murdoch.
Bruce Dover, an executive at the company, introduced the couple at a party in 1997. 'Afterwards in the car he was saying how impressive those Chinese women are. He was absolutely taken with her,' Mr Dover said. 'Wendi was well aware of her charms. She was flirtatious with the mainly male executive coterie around her at Star and a good number were actively vying for her attention.'
Mr Murdoch may have been smitten - but was still married to Anna Torv, his second wife and mother of three of his children, Lachlan, James and Elisabeth.
Star chief executive Gary Davey told biographer Mr Wolff: 'The flame was ignited.' However, Mr Murdoch has insisted they did not begin a romance until after he broke up with Anna.
His mother Dame Elisabeth, never accepted Ms Deng, saying in an interview to mark her 100th birthday: 'Rupert had a wonderful marriage to Anna and it was a terrible thing to just end it.
'I'm still so fond of Anna that I find it hard to accept Wendi, but I must, of course.'
The dislike was mutual. The day after Dame Elisabeth passed away at 103 last December, Ms Deng appeared at a Miami charity event with friends including Roman Abramovich's partner Dasha Zhukova and flamboyant writer Derek Blasberg.
A Murdoch acquaintance told The Mail on Sunday: 'Derek has become well known as her walker [platonic male escort]. It says something about a marriage being in trouble when your mother-in-law dies and you're at a party with a gay man.'
In 2008, there was speculation Ms Deng had developed a close friendship with Chris DeWolfe, one of the founders of the social networking site MySpace, which had been acquired by Mr Murdoch's empire for £300 million. Ms Deng was instrumental in negotiating the MySpace deal and still holds the post of Chief of Strategy for MySpace in China: 'Chris and Wendi were spending time together professionally but that is all there was to it,' a Murdoch aide insisted. 'He was a good-looking guy, a lot younger than Rupert. It was just gossip.'
As well as 'firing' Ms Deng, Mr Murdoch last week announced the retirement of his most trusted financial adviser David DeVoe. 'Rupert is cleaning house and preparing for the next stage in his life,' a senior source at News Corp said.
'His mother lived to 103 so he thinks he's got another 20 years ahead of him. He sees this as the start of another chapter, one called "Redemption".'
A 'cast iron' prenuptial agreement is said to provide generously for Ms Deng's future but gives her no say in any Murdoch-owned companies.
For an ambitious woman, who has thrived on being at the centre of power, this will be a comedown. But she has no regrets about moving across the world to marry a man twice her age.
Several years ago, she persuaded her mother, Xue Qin Lie, 77, and father, Dehui Deng, 75, to join her in New York, where she bought them a house in a largely Chinese-speaking community.
It is semi-detached and, by American standards, shabby and cramped.
But friends say that Ms Deng glows with pride when she recalls their joy when they moved in. 'When she was growing up, Wendi never thought any of them would own anything,' an acquaintance said. 'She did what she had to do when she came to this country. People who criticise her should think about what it was like living in Mao's China.'
- Mail on Sunday