The name, Tran Le Xuan, means Beautiful Spring, but you might know her as Madame Nhu, First Lady of South Vietnam (1955-63). To the American press she was Vietnam’s very own Joan of Arc, a vocal champion against spreading communism. But a decade later, the lacquered lady would be referred to Lucrezia Borgia of the Orient, to the CIA, Dragon Lady.
The Shebug was born into a wealthy Buddhist Saigon family. Rather than get roped into an arranged nuptial, the eighteen year old chose to wed one of her mother’s Catholic friend, Nhu of the prestigious mandarin Ngo clan, whose brother, Ngo Dihn Diem, would become Vietnam’s emperor. While Nhu acted as Diem’s political advisor and head of the secret police and of the Special Forces, the Catholic convert played the docile part of Leading Lady to her perennial bachelor brother-in-law who rarely ventured outside the palace walls.
Behind closed doors Madame Nhu cracked her whip- or rather, her ivory fan. Not only was it deployed coquettishly she clacked it shut like a gunshot to ensure she got what she wanted.
The diminutive deputy to the National Assembly with her trademark kohl-rimmed half-moon eyes and iconic beehive founded the Women’s Solidarity Movement between accumulating untold wealth and building her power base. Its 25,000 strong paramilitary members were paid double the wages of conscripts though they never set foot on the battlegrounds. Instead, the ladies happily paraded and saluted their founder in front of the cameras.
Her impolitic penchant to say exactly what she thought was catnip to the international press. Her favourite motto was: “ Power is wonderful. Total power is totally wonderful.” She once told a group of American congressmen, "I'm not exactly afraid of death. I love power and in the next life I have a chance to be even more powerful than I am."
Madame Nhu might have lost her way in a big way drunk on power, but she certainly possessed style. She made the form-fitting classic Vietnamese tunic, ao dai, her signature outfit, modifying the national dress with a deep neckline. When Diem, a notorious prude, once questioned the modesty of his sister-in-law’s low-cut dress, she was said to have snapped back: “It’s not your neck that sticks out, it’s mine. So shut up.” One French journalist described her as being ‘moulded into her dress like a dagger in its sheath.”
She also went from anti-communist champion to zealot when she outlawed divorce, contraception and dancing the Twist; but she also put an end to cock fighting, opium dens and brothels.
But what keeps her name imprisoned in Shebug annals was her reaction to the Buddhists who revolted against the corrupt regime by setting themselves alight. She icily told reporters, “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.” Whilst the world was left stunned by photographs of monks shrouded in flames, Madame Nhu offered to bring along some mustard for the next self-immolation...
Pre-warped mind, Madame Nhu said she had taken her inspiration from the Trung sisters who in 40AD gathered up armies and fought off the Chinese with formidable fury and cunning astride mighty elephants. Madame would later have statues erected of the famous siblings with the facial features modeled on her own costing her countrymen a cool $20,000. No sooner did the Diem regime was topple, so did that statue.
U.S. Defense Secretary McNamara noted, "I saw Madame Nhu as bright, forceful, and beautiful, but also diabolical and scheming—a true sorceress."