TRAN LE XUAN, aka Madame Nhu.

Madame Nhu: Vietnam’s Lady Macbeth

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery (PublicAffairs, 2013)

Malcolm Browne’s famous 1963 photo of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire to protest the South Vietnamese regime horrified the American public, but Madame Nhu, sister-in-law of South Vietnamese President Diem and unofficial First Lady, had no sympathy. “Let [the monks] burn, and we shall clap our hands,” she said. “If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline and a match.”

Thich Quang Duc, Buddhist martyr.

Madame Nhu’s vicious tongue and glamorous image earned her the name “Dragon Lady” in the American media, for whom she was a visual distillation of everything fascinating and frightening about exotic Vietnam. Just as her tiny, previously obscure Southeast Asian country came to consume the attentions of the American superpower, so too did Madame Nhu — this little, French-speaking Asian woman, always fastidiously dressed — become, briefly, the recognizable face of Vietnam for Americans: for conservative hardliners, the tough damsel-in-distress of a beleaguered nation; for the proto-anti war movement, a symbol of everything that was wrong about Vietnam and America’s burgeoning involvement; and for anti-communist liberals, an increasingly embarrassing reminder of the autocratic Diem regime’s moral inconsistency.

It was during a speaking tour of the U.S. that Madame Nhu learned that her own government had been overthrown — at the hands of a military coup sponsored by the American government, whose patience with the Diem regime had finally been exhausted. Her husband and brother-in-law were dead. President Diem had been dignified with a single gunshot to the head. Madame Nhu’s husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the president’s iron-fisted right hand, was bayoneted twenty times by his own soldiers. The Nhu children just barely escaped. Madame Nhu entered exile, and for the next half century, she hid from the public eye, her whereabouts unknown, refusing the attentions of journalists and historians.

By the time of her death in 2011, Madame Nhu was largely forgotten, and her full story would have never been told were it not for an unexpected interlocutor: Monique Brinson Demery, a young historian who managed not only to track Nhu down in Paris, but to win her trust and eventually gain access to her unpublished memoirs and diaries. The result is Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu, a brief but engrossing biography of Madame Nhu framed as a historical detective narrative.

Finding the Dragon Lady is two, intertwined narratives: the story of Madame Nhu and the story of getting the story of Madame Nhu. The elderly Madame Nhu — paranoid and fragile, but not without her famous hauteur — led Demery on a minor cat-and-mouse chase which eventually evolved into an unlikely friendship. Between her access to Nhu, her own research, and the hail-Mary intercession of a retired American marine with a unique family heirloom, Demery pulls together enough material to sketch a biography of Madame Nhu and the times she lived.

The girl born Tran Le Xuan, a Buddhist middle daughter, lived through several Vietnams. Crumbling French Indochina was occupied by Japan during the Second World War with the collaboration of Vichy colonial authorities. The post-war French attempt to re-assert control was countered by a bloody nationalist insurgency, the end results of which were Vietnamese independence and partition between North Vietnam, a revolutionary communist government, and South Vietnam, a rump state led by Diem’s Catholic regime and an often-ungrateful client of the United States. Madame Nhu was First Lady of independent South Vietnam during the interregnum when French influence faded away, American influence ratcheted, and the civil war grew closer to Saigon every day.

Madame Nhu with loyalist female paramilitaries.

Vietnamese and Americans alike were fascinated by Madame Nhu — even those who hated her, and there were many. The Western press corps believed her to be a sort of Marie Antoinette: the female face of a decadent regime, aloof from conditions on the ground and the sentiment of her own people, ignorant of her looming doom. David Halberstam said she was a “beautiful but diabolic sex dictatress.” For the U.S. administration, American diplomats, and the CIA, Madame Nhu was a cunning Borgia to be reckoned with. President Kennedy blamed the entire coup and its outcome on her: “That goddamn bitch,” he said. “She’s responsible…that bitch stuck her nose in and boiled up the whole situation down there.”

Was Madame Nhu — who held little actual power — truly Machiavellian, or were these hyperbolic speculations compounded by the sexual and racial assumptions of her observers? Certainly, Madame Nhu was not all that she was ascribed. What she resembles above all, at least in Demery’s telling, is a character from Shakespeare, stuck in a tragic play with no possible happy ending, doomed by her own hubris.

Despite the escalating effect of her uncompromising rhetoric, and despite her formidable public profile, it seems dubious that Madame Nhu was truly historically pivotal. Demery doesn’t try to make that argument. Instead she recognizes Madame Nhu for what she was: a compelling character, and someone who not only occupied but in many ways epitomized a unique, fleeting time and place. Finding the Dragon Lady is not comprehensive or authoritative on Vietnam and it may not even be the last word on Madame Nhu. It’s more of a sketch than a fully-fleshed account, but it’s a very perceptive sketch.

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