If you’re looking for a quick and fascinating read this winter, I can’t say enough about Monique Brinson Demery’s new book, Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu (PublicAffairs, 2013).
Although we all know what ultimately happens in this story, Monique Demery has presented a haunting, suspenseful book that kept me turning the pages until I finished it 24 hours later.
Madame Nhu was the First Lady of South Vietnam from the time the French left in 1954 until her husband and brother-in-law were assassinated (thanks to an American directive) in 1963. But it wasn’t her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was the head of state, but rather her bachelor brother-in-law, Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem needed a female counterpart to attend state dinners and meet with other first ladies. Enter Madame Nhu. Strong willed, outgoing, intelligent, and opinionated, she was perfect for the job. But she was also feared and disparaged in the west.
And here’s why. When strong Asian women like Jiang Qing (Madame Mao), Soong Mei-ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek), and Imelda Marcos didn’t fit the submissive stereotype, people in the west viewed these women as threatening, emasculating dragon ladies.
Madame Nhu was no exception, which was especially apparent during her trip to the United States around the time her husband was killed. Although the Ngo brothers were staunch anti-Communists, the United States withdrew support after public opinion in South Vietnam turned against Ngo Dinh Diem and his administration, including Madame Nhu.
After her husband’s death, Madame Nhu lived a life in exile in Paris and Rome. She refused all interviews starting in 1986, shortly after her brother murdered their parents in Washington, DC. That is until Demery found her in Paris 20 years later.
Madame Nhu died in Rome a few years ago. We are fortunate that a thirty-something American woman took the time and patience to find Madame Nhu and hear her side of this tragic story.