Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu

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by Monique Brinson Demery
     
 

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In November 1963, the president of South Vietnam and his brother were brutally executed in a coup that was sanctioned and supported by the American government. President Kennedy later explained to his close friend Paul “Red” Fay that the reason the United States made the fateful decision to get rid of the Ngos was in no small part because of South…  See more details below

Overview

In November 1963, the president of South Vietnam and his brother were brutally executed in a coup that was sanctioned and supported by the American government. President Kennedy later explained to his close friend Paul “Red” Fay that the reason the United States made the fateful decision to get rid of the Ngos was in no small part because of South Vietnam’s first lady, Madame Nhu. “That goddamn bitch,” Fay remembers President Kennedy saying, “She’s responsible ... that bitch stuck her nose in and boiled up the whole situation down there.”

The coup marked the collapse of the Diem government and became the US entry point for a decade-long conflict in Vietnam. Kennedy’s death and the atrocities of the ensuing war eclipsed the memory of Madame Nhu—with her daunting mixture of fierceness and beauty. But at the time, to David Halberstam, she was “the beautiful but diabolic sex dictatress,” and Malcolm Browne called her “the most dangerous enemy a man can have.”

By 1987, the once-glamorous celebrity had retreated into exile and seclusion, and remained there until young American Monique Demery tracked her down in Paris thirty years later. Finding the Dragon Lady is Demery’s story of her improbable relationship with Madame Nhu, and—having ultimately been entrusted with Madame Nhu’s unpublished memoirs and her diary from the years leading up to the coup—the first full history of the Dragon Lady herself, a woman who was feared and fantasized over in her time, and who singlehandedly frustrated the government of one of the world’s superpowers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Madame Nhu (born Tran Le Xuan) was a notorious personage in South Vietnam during the late 1950s and early ’60s. The surrogate First Lady of the repressive government (headed by her husband’s bachelor brother, Ngo Dinh Diem) was vocal about her love of power and infamous for her fierce authoritarianism (she once mocked a Buddhist monk who had set himself on fire in protest of Diem’s regime by saying she would “clap her hands for another monk’s barbecue”). Her incendiary rhetoric earned her the nickname “the Dragon Lady.” Yet after her husband and brother-in-law were assassinated during the U.S.-backed military coup of 1963, she went into hiding for nearly 30 years. In this illuminating biography, East Asia scholar Demery interweaves the story of her efforts to connect with her reclusive subject with the dramatic tale of Nhu’s volatile life. The Dragon Lady ultimately granted Demery unprecedented access, going so far as to entrust the journalist with her unpublished memoirs. Without condoning Nhu’s actions, Demery admits that she eventually came to respect her as “a staggeringly beautiful, proud, willful... woman” who refused to be constrained by the men in her life. The book adds little to the history of the Vietnam War, but it does shed light on one of the country’s most controversial figures. Photos, map, and time line. Agent: Lindsay Edgecombe, Levine Greenberg Literary Associates. (Sept. 24)
From the Publisher

Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal
“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.”

Kirkus Reviews
“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.”

Booklist online
“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.”

Daily Beast
“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.”

Publishers Weekly
“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 sources—including interviews with Madame Nhu—Demery’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.”

Kirkus Reviews
2013-08-15
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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781610392822
Publisher:
PublicAffairs
Publication date:
09/24/2013
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
280
Sales rank:
484,798
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

PARIS, 2005

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 distinction—when 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, Illinois.

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