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

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Demery’s story of her improbable relationship with Madame Nhu, and—having ultimately been entrusted with Madame Nhu’s unpublished memoirs and her diary from the years leading up to the coup—the first full history of the Dragon Lady herself, a woman who was feared and fantasized over in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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I fell in love with dragons when I read Tea With the Black Dragon, and never looked back. Not the clunky winged Medieval dragons that ate cows, the graceful Asian dragons that could fly without wings. Later I discovered the elegant Welsh dragons, red and white, as described by R.J. Stewart in his books on the historical Merlin.
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3 Responses to Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu

  1. Cheryl M-M says:

    The woman behind the South Vietnamese seat of power during the Diệm era 0

  2. Chris says:

    Original research on the Vietnam era 0

  3. "A Vietnamese reader" Lê-Liêm says:

    TITLE: FOR THE BENEFIT OF RESEARCHERS: WHERE TO FIND MADAME NHU? THE MYSTERY REMAINS, EVEN MORE… There has been another book based on the memoir of Madame Nhu, published by a French publisher, an esoteric group with a division specializing Asia and a reputation for publishing works that cannot be published elsewhere. The French publication is edited by the surviving children of Madame Nhu. Hence, the authenticity of Ms. Demery’s book must be reevaluated. I am quoting the announcement of the French publication below:”Annonce de la parution des mémoires de Mme Nhu sous la forme d’un recueil édité par ses enfants Ngô-Ðình Quynh et Ngô-Ðình Lê Quyên (1959-2012). Ci-après présentation de l’éditeur.À travers l’histoire de la « République du Viêt-Nam » au temps des Ngô-Ðình, ses bâtisseurs, et les événements meurtriers qui ont tenté de la détruire, c’est toute la vitalité de l’âme Viêt qui est en devenir comme l’exprime Madame Ngô-Ðình Nhu dans les mémoires inspirés qu’elle a dédiés à son pays. Ses enfants, Ngô-Ðình Quynh et Ngô-Ðình Lê Quyên, grâce à leurs archives familiales, nous permettent de comprendre la voie qu’ont voulu tracer les frères Ngô-Ðình pour que leur pays vive selon ses propres valeurs. Le cinquantième anniversaire de leur assassinat survenu le 2 novembre 1963 offre à l’Occident l’opportunité d’une large méditation sur les erreurs du passé.”SOURCE: Harmattan_LaRepubliqueDuVietNamEtLesNgoDinhThere are many cultural errors in Ms. Emery’s book, perhaps recognized only by native Vietnamese. I won’t bother with details on this limited channel. Apparently, Ms. Demery’s book was written for the American public, but should there be such a difference in standard in the search for truth and understanding? To start, Ms. Demery repeated the Western epithet, “Dragon Lady,” as part of the title, the very first step of her revisiting this historical figure and the dark chapter in the history of both Vietnam and America — she started with the negative and its prejudice. Not that Ms. Demery wasn’t aware of what she was doing and the approach she used — she explained the epithet in the final chapter of her book. But something else is more important for readers and researchers on this topic: Which memoir of Madame Nhu is the authentic one? Based on the recent development and Ms. Demery’s work, there have been three sources: 1) the memoir provided Ms. Demery by Madam Nhu after so much courting between her and the 80-something aging and frail woman who had suffered as much loss as she had gathered glamour; 2) the memoir in the possession of her surviving children published in France, and 3) a memoir claimed by first-generation Vietnamese who interviewed her in Paris. Perhaps 1, 2, and 3 are the same! However, according to Ms. Demery, there was another memoir written in the 50s and/or early 60s, or more precisely a diary allegedly kept by Madame Nhu and found by the ‘revolutionists” who looted the independent palace in November, 1963. Somehow, this secret diary emerged after 5 decades and found its way to Ms. Demery, in which the private side of the Nhus’ marital relationship was revealed in very vague, yet scandalous terms. Ms. Demery couldn’t resist the temptation of making this known to her reading public, posthumous to Madame Nhu, just as Ms. Demery couldn’t resist the marketability of “deja vu” — the return to the popular, yet infamous American slang pinned upon the Vietnamese “outspoken diminutive beauty” hated by many of both her fellow Vietnamese and the American press (and politicians). I wonder what Madame Nhu might have felt had she known that her alleged lost diary would make its way into Ms. Demery’s book? She is too dead now to be accorded a chance for response and explanation. We should wonder at what point Ms. Demery first knew of this diary, and whether she informed her subject, whom she judged during the development of the relationship. Her good intention was to correct misunderstandings and to present the more humane side of the controversial international figure that has been forgotten by younger generations. Ms. Demery promised Madame Nhu not to change her memoir, yet it was in effect changed due to Ms. Demery’s discovery of this “lost diary.” Love her or hate her, one must acknowledge that Madame Nhu was committed to her husband, her family, her cause and her faith. Ms. Demery’s revelation of what was in this lost diary undermined Madame Nhu’s lifetime commitment in a way that fell short of what is expected of serious and objective historical analyses. This book adds little to our understanding of history; nor does it resolve unanswered queries by historians, let alone the unresolved feelings and pains of Vietnamese on the losing side of that war. But, Ms. Demery is a good writer and the book has a novelistic quality to…

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