Shadowing the Murdoch family would make for terrific reality TV, but since that's never going to happen, the new profile in Vanity Fair might be as close as we can get to understanding the media dynasty. Vanity Fair tells their story as if it were some unwritten Shakespearean play, a story about the most privileged of families that can't seem to escape tragedy. Murdoch and his chosen children — Lachlan, Elisabeth and James are three out of six that stand a chance to take over News Corp. — are staring down the worst scandal in the company's history, and Vanity Fair's Sarah Ellison explains Murdoch's hand-wringing over who could claim his throne like a missing act from Hamlet. Remember the gravedigger scene and the skull of Yorick? Swap in James Murdoch for Prince Hamlet and Chairman Mao for Yorick, and that more or less sums up the symbolism of the details in Ellison's sprawling but handily chronological telling of the Murdoch debacle. (Shakespeare experts: That metaphor only extends so far, we realize.)
This is all to say that the Murdoch family is still a family with family-style problems. Even if they're worthy of nearly 7,500 probably very expensive words in Vanity Fair, they're full of tragic flaws as characters and struggle with all sorts of conflicts. We pulled together some sob stories, beginning with a sort of poignant parallel between a young Rupert Murdoch and his son James. The two of them have never quite gotten along, but at least they share a sense of irony.
At the Rawkus office in New York, James hung a poster of Chairman Mao on his wall. (The statement unwittingly—or maybe not—mimicked his father’s own political evolution: at Oxford, Rupert had kept a bust of Lenin in his room.)
We also learned that James was in the same final club at Harvard as the Winklevoss twins. This portrait helps explain that Mao poster a little bit better:
James went to Harvard, where he was admitted into the Porcellian Club and drew cartoons for the satirical Lampoon. A life of unthinking privilege often gives rise to rebellion. A tattoo of a lightbulb on his right arm, pierced ears, dyed hair worn long—these were among the ways in which James did battle against his surname. He was also a little geeky; he knew his way around the Internet back before the Internet was cool.
Elisabeth, the middle child among the three heirs to the News Corp. throne, didn't have it so easy:
Named after Rupert’s mother, Elisabeth is the child with whom Murdoch has “struggled most,” a longtime Murdoch associate told me. “He never considered her as a successor, but he didn’t want her out on her own. There is an element of male chauvinism. Fathers love their daughters, but they never take them seriously.”
Elisabeth didn't help matters when she got involved with publicist Matthew Freud, the great-grandson of Sigmund Freud, who talked her into rebelling against her father by building her own company. Please redirect all jokes about the Freudian implications of this into the comments:
In May 2000, with no small sense of the moment, Elisabeth faxed her father a copy of the press release announcing her resignation. She had given him no advance warning, and the fax came through to his assistant, Dot Wyndoe, who handed it to Rupert without a word. He called Elisabeth almost immediately, and the two of them “got into it” on the phone. Then she dropped the real bombshell: “Dad, you are so pissed at me now you might as well know I’m pregnant with Matthew’s child.”
And then there's Lachlan, the oldest of the heirs, who was always supposed to be kind. It's a bit of a stretch, but we'll just go ahead and blame his fall from grace on Roger Ailes:
Much as he was admired in Australia, he was mocked in New York. His father’s executives called him “the prince” behind his back, and two of Rupert’s most powerful and established deputies were always in the way: Chernin, whose Hollywood connections were formidable, and Roger Ailes, the creator of Fox News. “Peter Chernin would not let him get involved in Hollywood, and Roger Ailes would not let him get involved in anything,” a former executive told me.
But does Rupert really even want his children to take over? Not if he can figure out that whole eternal life thing. In the meantime, he's really just not planning on dying:
One of his former executives has recounted how, when Rupert was 76 and had just completed his acquisition of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal someone gingerly raised the topic of succession. Rupert visibly stiffened when the proposed time frame was 10 years. He shook his head. The discussion shifted to 20 years. He furrowed his brow. Then, finally, it moved to 30 years. He seemed to relax. Yes, 30 years seemed like a reasonable time horizon, when he would be 106. Rupert’s mother, Dame Elisabeth, is 102 and still alive and vigorous.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.