Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhuby Monique Brinson Demery
She was “the beautiful but diabolic sex dictatress” according to the journalist David Halberstam; "everything Jack found unattractive” in the/b>
A quest for one of history’s most controversial figuresthe woman, known everywhere in her day as the Dragon Lady, who was a lightning rod for America’s toxic involvement in Vietnam
She was “the beautiful but diabolic sex dictatress” according to the journalist David Halberstam; "everything Jack found unattractive” in the words of Jacqueline Kennedy; “the most dangerous enemy a man can have” in Malcolm Browne’s view; and everywhere in the media in the 1960s she was the “Dragon Lady.” Monique Demery’s search for the woman behind all the epithets, claims, and counterclaimsa woman who had been living in exile and seclusion for thirty yearsbegan on the streets of Paris and deepened when she began a relationship with, and was entrusted with the unpublished memoirs of, Tran Le Xuan, otherwise known as Madame Nhu, the First Lady of the doomed republic of South Vietnam.
Madame Nhu’s diminutive beauty cannot obscure her pivotal role in one of American history’s darkest moments: she was much of the reason that the United States made the fateful decision to get rid of the ruling Ngo family. Demery investigates the reality behind the myth, giving us a deeper look at the woman who was feared and despised by so much of the world, one of the most memorable figures of the entire Vietnam War.
An independent scholar's engagingly provocative account of her encounters with the once-reviled former first lady of South Vietnam, Madame Nhu. Demery's obsession with the infamous "Dragon Lady" of Southeast Asia began when she was a child. As an adult, she came to realize that the glamour that had captivated her also encapsulated a very contemporary problem for women involved in politics. Apart from what she actually accomplished, any powerful female who also looked good would always be a media target. Not surprisingly, little of substance had been written about Madame Nhu, who went into seclusion in 1986; yet Demery managed to track her down to an apartment in Paris. For more than five years, the two carried on a conversation via phone and email that often seemed like an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, with Madame Nhu constantly testing Demery and holding herself "just out of reach." The young scholar still managed to learn that Madame Nhu grew up an unloved and neglected child. But shrewd personal choices allowed her to outdo either of her coddled sisters and marry the brother of the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dihn Diem. Fiery and theatrical, Madame Nhu seized the opportunity to play an important role in her future by "launch[ing] herself into the political vacuum created by a distant pen-pushing prime minister and his furtive brother." Not only did she take on the traditional "hostess" responsibilities of first lady, she also helped enact legislation to uplift the status of women while working behind the scenes to stave off coup attempts from rebel communist forces. However, her beauty and outspokenness worked against her in conservative Kennedy-era America, which eventually supported the uprising that killed both her husband and President Diem. Smart and well-researched, Demery's biography offers insight into both an intriguing figure and the complicated historical moment with which she became eternally identified. A welcome addition to the literature on Vietnam.
“A fascinating portrait of this polarizing figure [a] fair-minded and readable look at Madame Nhu and her prominent role in the early years of the Vietnam War This book performs an especially valuable service to readers who want to understand why the U.S. sometimes stumbles in foreign affairs .The book benefits from a firm understanding of Vietnamese traditions. In the end, Demery admits that she ultimately became Madame Nhu's "friend," an admission that makes the reader admire the biographer even more for being so clear-eyed about her subject's flaws.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Demery succeeds in painting such a nuanced picture of this powerful woman that by the time we reach Madame Nhu's 1963 U.S. press tour, we can sympathize with her desire to defend her country ‘Finding the Dragon Lady’ is a brave book. Demery realized that ‘I had been handed the chance to breathe some life into the remote, exotic place in history to which she had been assigned,’ and she took that opportunity to push beyond the conventional understanding of this painful and polarizing era. It's a testament to her deep knowledge of Vietnamese and American culture that she leaves us wondering what might have been.”
“Engagingly provocative Smart and well-researched, Demery’s biography offers insight into both an intriguing figure and the complicated historical moment with which she became eternally identified. A welcome addition to the literature on Vietnam.”
“The book restores Madame Nhu to her proper place in history, as a ruthless and brilliant woman without whose manipulations the war in Vietnam might have turned out very differently this frequently surprising book brings its subject back from exile.”
“Deeply intriguing...one hell of a story.”
Alexia Nader, Kirkus Reviews
“Finding the Dragon Lady stands out from most biographies of political leaders: It emphasizes, rather than conceals, the competing narratives of an unreliable and manipulative subject It was ultimately Demery’s candid way of writing and structuring her biography that won her the battle with her subject. Her book reveals the many masks Madame Nhu wore to guard herself against the public (and even the author), and gives stark glimpses of the woman underneath.”
“Illuminating shed[s] light on one of the country’s most controversial figures.”
Elizabeth Becker, author of When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge
“Even those familiar with the history of Vietnam will be astonished at the bizarre case of Madame Nhu. Monique Demery tracks down the original Vietnamese 'Dragon Lady' who confesses to weaknesses and heartbreak but refuses to take responsibility for her role in the war that ruined so many lives in her country and ours.”
Robert K. Brigham, Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar College
“Finding the Dragon Lady is a truly monumental achievement. Demery has vividly captured the life and times of one of Vietnam’s most intriguing figures. Beautifully told, and exhaustively researched in French, Vietnamese, and American sourcesincluding interviews with Madame NhuDemery’s book is now the standard for understanding the cultural politics of South Vietnam’s first family.”
Craig R. Whitney, Vietnam War correspondent and author of Living with Guns
“In the early days of America’s engagement in Vietnam, no one played a greater role than Madame Nhu in shaping the Saigon regime’s anti-Communist fervor. But who was the Dragon Lady, really? This superb portrait reveals her self-doubts, conveys the fierce persona she developed to overcome them, and explains how her zealotry doomed the regime and condemned her to a life in exile.”
David Lamb, author, Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns
“Here is the last untold story of the Vietnam war, the riveting, intimate and ultimately tragic profile of Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, South Vietnam’s unofficial First Lady whose political power and ruthlessness earned her the nickname The Dragon Lady. In her life, which ended in exile and isolation in 2011, are the seeds of America’s ill-fated military involvement in Vietnam. Monique Demery spent ten years tracking down the elusive Dragon Lady. Her diligence has produced a laudatory book that is at once scholarly and as readable as a good mystery.”
Morley Safer, correspondent for 60 Minutes, CBS News
“It was said of Lord Byron that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Not a bad appellation or epitaph for Tran Le Xuan, the infamous Madam Nhu. Monique Brinson Demery has deftly captured the life and time of the woman who defied her own government, the communist forces of North Vietnam and the Americans.”
Philip Caputo, author of A Rumor of War and the forthcoming The Longest Road
“Monique Demery's account of her search for one of the pivotal figures in the Vietnam War, the beautiful and dangerous Madame Nhu, is a riveting detective story and a fascinating portrait of a woman far more complicated than her media image as The Dragon Lady.”
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Read an Excerpt
By the time I started looking for Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, the former First Lady of South Vietnam had been living in exile for over forty years. In the 1960s, at the height of her fame, the thirty-nine year old Madame Nhu had been named by the New York Times “the most powerful woman in Asia, if not the world.” But it was her reputation as the Dragon Lady that brought her real distinctionwhen the Buddhist monks were setting themselves on fire in the streets of Saigon, Madame Nhu’s response was unspeakably cruel: “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands,” she said with a smile. “If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline and a match.” The dangerous, dark eyed beauty quickly became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Madame Nhu faded from public view after November of 1963. That was when her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and his brother, South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, were killed in a coup that was sanctioned and supported by the government of the United States. As President John F. Kennedy explained to his close friend, Paul "Red” Fay, the reason that the United States had to get rid of the Ngo brothers was in no small part because of Madame Nhu. “That goddamn bitch,” he said to his friend. “She’s responsible...that bitch stuck her nose in and boiled up the whole situation down there.”
Meet the Author
Monique Brinson Demery took her first trip to Vietnam in 1997 as part of a study abroad program with Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She was the recipient of a US Department of Education grant to attend the Vietnamese Advanced Summer Institute in Hanoi, and in 2003, she received a Masters degree in East Asia Regional Studies from Harvard University. Demery’s initial interviews with Madame Nhu in 2005 were the first that she had given to any Westerner in nearly twenty years. Demery lives in Chicago.
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Congratulations on a book well-written, Monique, and many thanks for sharing your research with the public. I purchased an e-copy so that my wife and I may share the enjoyment of reading your good work. However, after the first few pages, my wife remarked: “Here it goes again, this woman was trying to fool another person into believing how saintly she was, the way she did you, Walter!” Of course, she was flattered that the press had called her “The Dragon Lady”, but, in reality, in her own words, she would have rather been referred to as “Santa Evita” because she wanted to be compared to, and remembered as, the Vietnamese Eva Peron. She stood me up, too, more than once, a good ten years before she failed to show up at that church to meet you in Paris. The sad part is; you and I weren’t the only persons whom she had successfully misled. My relationship with Le Xuan was of a love-hate nature. I loved her for the efforts to empower the women of Vietnam and for her sense of style. I loved her even more when she spoke sweetly about putting my picture under her pillow each and every night – if I could believe it. But I also hated her for being so evil and condescending. Her tale of cradling Le Thuy in her arms and proceeded to cross the bridge under fire accentuated a well-defined exclamation mark to the term “disgust”. Nowhere in her story did she ever revealed that she had ran a high-class brothel in Cho Lon – the Chinatown of Saigon – where foreign dignitaries’ needs were catered to, and where secret microphones and cameras were well hidden from the unsuspecting guests. Also, nowhere did she recall the story of how she had lost her virginity to a 17-year-old university student when she was in Ha Noi. Worse yet, she painted a final picture of her being a not-well-to-do woman of old age, but in reality, her investments at the former Merrill-Lynch were almost equal to the GDPs of some countries on the African continent. Again, congratulations on a project which deserves many accolades, Monique Respectfully, Walter Ta
Women in politics. They are often reduced to the clothes they are wearing and the hairstyle they rock. In a predominantly male driven aspect of society the female is usually merely the wife of, daughter of or mistress of a man in power. Not enough women take center stage in government and when they do they are scrutinized and criticized far harsher than their male counterparts. Madame Nhu was only the sister in law of the man in charge and yet she and her family exerted the strongest influence on him and the country. She was known for her lack of diplomacy. She refused to stay quiet and called a duck a duck if indeed it quacked and walked like said duck. She put many policies into place that took women back 20 steps into the last century. Her so called morality laws outlawed abortion,divorce, adultery, contraceptives, dance halls, beauty pageants and she was often called out for being a hypocrite. Madame Nhu was adamant and very vocal about the fact that the Americans brought about the downfall of her family and in doing so also the country. "My family has been treacherously killed with either official or unofficial blessing of the American government, I can predict to you now that the story is only at its beginning." Of course that statement, which implies better the devil you know than the devil you don't, was to be eerily predictive. The US thought they could control the outcome in North Vietnam via South Vietnam by removing Di¿m. Instead the removal of Di¿m and Nhu was the start of even greater instability in South Vietnam. Demery makes an interesting point about the influence certain foreign press members had in South Vietnam. Openly critical of Madame Nhu and the country ruled by her family members they were actually undermining the US and strengthening the North Vietnamese. Pulling the rug right out from under them in the name of the press. When the Buddhists starting protesting and the pagoda raids followed Madame Nhu was convinced that the Buddhist protest was backed and planned by the communists and manipulated by the Americans. Many years later a man who worked for many Us newspapers in Vietnam during the Di¿m era was revealed as a North Vietnamese collaborator when he defected to NV. Often seen as the loud mouthed, bossy Iron Lady of SV, the power behind the throne so to speak Madame Nhu was right on the button when it come to evaluating the political situation in her country. She was right about something so pivotal that if someone had listened they might have understood. If you do not come from that country and culture then it is nigh on impossible to understand the complexity of past history, traditional values and the mindset of man in that foreign country, especially when it is the complete opposite of Western culture. Unfortunately that is a mistake still made nearly half a century later. Demery set out to find and understand the elusive Madame Nhu but I think in the end she remained the misunderstood and often misrepresented enigma that she has been for many decades. Other than the research already presented and written about by others Demery wasn't able to get Madame Nhu to let her guard down. She died with her inner Pandora's Box intact. The woman was as sharp as knife there is a reason she kept that box closed very tightly. I really enjoyed the way the author approached the subject. It was written in a very personal and lighthearted way with factual clarity. Demery is concise without being boring and praises her sources for the groundwork they have already done on the subject in hand. Kudos to the author for both the intricate research and for giving others their due when necessary. An immensely interesting read. I received a copy of this book via NetGalley.
The story of Madame Nhu begins with her life as an upcoming bride living in a Vietnam laced with French dominion and influence. She is about to marry a man who will eventually become the Prime Minister of Vietnam, the man who will wield the real power behind President Ngo Dinh Diem as nations and revolutionary groups vie for power, prestige, and style in Vietnam. For now Tran Le Xuan, Nhu’s name in her youth), is excited about her marriage and upcoming family status. But intrigue is omnipresent and Nhu’s life seems like it is unraveling as she initially fails to beget children and her husband seems more entwined with his secret trips and missions than he is with his young bride. At the same time, we learn how North Vietnamese leaders are seeking to combine their rising power with French administration. The French will fall eventually and Tran will learn how the poor and suffering live when she is forced to flee with her family as the Communists from the North approach South Vietnam. From that point on, Madame Nhu reaches deep inside to let her immense strength confront all obstacles in her path. The story continues with American advisers coming to court her husband and Diem will take over after a coup. Madame Nhu’s notoriety grows as she declares her love of power and prestige and comes across as cold and heartless toward the people she is supposed to serve. Indeed the rule of her family and Diem is correctly labeled as repressive, though these rulers always claimed the treatment was to safeguard their people. Her callous remarks about the burning Buddhist monk serve as the vicious, cold benchmark of her future years. Until her husband and Diem are assassinated, she will court power and use her sexy, slim body and charm to keep South Vietnam free. One aspect that is always clear in this account is how mixed the advice and help from the USA was. American estimation of the rising threat of Ho Chi Minh always seems inaccurate and forthcoming help was the same; the replies of Madame Nhu and the South Vietnam government was partially responsible as they feared a foreign takeover by the Communists, French (again!) or even the Americans if the truth were to be admitted. Madame Nhu goes into seclusion when she barely manages to escape to America and remains there for over 30 years before her story is told by the author of this account. In order to gain all the information in this book, the author had to play a cat-and-mouse game with Madame Nhu in which the author would be fed bits and pieces of little known information but never wholescale openness and trust. Madame Nhu, we learn, had reason to fear the vengeance of many who considered her responsible for thousands of deaths, losses and disasters that befell the Vietnamese people. The story never loses the sense of intrigue, mystery, and exposure of truth and thus is a superb nonfiction account of a pivotal time in global history that affected the lives of millions to the present day. Finely crafted account of this very famous lady’s journey through the vicissitudes of Vietnamese and American history!
Poorly written and very disappointing read. The author had nothing new. She stated in her book that she felt used by her subject and that her time was wasted. I feel that way as well.
This is the captivating account of another enormously wasteful "dirty war", when national interests compete with personal greed and selfishness... and history is made through individual destinies great and small. Through the author's searching for Madame Nhu, we can share her feelings, between fascination and repulsion, admiration and compassion, and discover the complex personality of the Dragon Lady and the tragic destiny of her family and her people. It is an excellent history book I read like a thriller.
WHAT A PAGETURNER!!!! I am more of a historical FICTION reader myself....but I decided to take a chance after I read a few reviews..... and I was TRANSPORTED by this book! I have so little knowledge of Vietnam and had never heard of Madam Nhu before, so Mrs. Demery's research and interviews proved fascinating. EQUALLY compelling, though, was Mrs. Demery's actual painstaking (and extremely patient and empathetic), journey to accurately document her subject!! I have so many favorite parts, but I don't want to spoil a single page of it for any new readers! I devoured it....and i think you will too!! How do we get Mrs. Demery to write an excerpt of this book for Vanity Fair?!?!