"Bonjour," said the gravelly voice on the phone that fateful day in June 2005. “Madame Demery?” Monique Brinson Demery's heart began pounding. The woman on the other end of the line was the infamous Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu — the former First Lady of South Vietnam, the cruel “Dragon Lady” whose response to the self-immolation of Buddhist monks on the streets of Saigon in 1963 was “Let them burn, and we shall clap our hands.” She was Vietnam's Marie Antoinette, its Eva Peron and, after more than four decades of secretive exile in Paris, its Greta Garbo.
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Demery had been fascinated by Madame Nhu — who appeared in many books and articles about Vietnam but as little more than an elegantly sinister cartoon or, worse, a footnote — since the budding author's childhood in the North Shore suburb of Kenilworth. More recently, after spending time in Vietnam and earning a master's degree in East Asian studies at Harvard, Demery had become fixated on finding the elusive Madame Nhu, with the goal of getting her to cooperate on a biography. Using her investigative and deductive skills, Demery had tracked Madame Nhu down to her Paris apartment building, where the author had left a note asking the older woman to call.
And now she had.
"Oui," said Demery, whose mother is from France and who often travels there to visit relatives. And so began the eight-year journey that culminated in this fall's publication of "Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu." In her well written, carefully reported book, Demery tells the intertwining stories of the aristocratic former Tran Le Xuan, whose cousin was the titular Emperor of Vietnam during its occupation by the French, and the author's own cultivation of the alternately imperious and solicitous Madame Nhu, who had lived in seclusion since the U.S.-backed 1963 assassination of her husband and his older brother, the South Vietnamese strongman Ngo Dinh Diem.
"What drew me in as a little girl was just that she was so glamorous, so beautiful, which was such a strong contrast with the horror of the Vietnam War," says Demery, 37, over a recent breakfast. "It flew in the face of everything I'd always heard about the war, and to my young mind that was an interesting juxtaposition. Later on, I was struck by the fact that Madame Nhu had lived in such a turbulent time. The world she'd been brought up to take for granted — the world of French colonial Vietnam — was no longer there by the time she was a young woman, and she seized the opportunity to become more independent, much more than would have been possible for her in that old way of life."
In "Finding the Dragon Lady," Demery fleshes out the multilayered, often contradictory personality of the indomitable Madame Nhu, who became a political force largely independent of her increasingly repressive husband and brother-in-law. As an elected member of the National Assembly, she was a proto-feminist, reforming regressive colonial-era laws regarding women and forming a female militia — "my little darlings" — which she drilled herself. (A photo of a perfectly coiffed, elegantly dressed Madame Nhu demonstrating how to fire a pistol, one eye squeezed shut, became iconic enough to be the obvious choice for cover art for Demery's book.) She was fearless to a fault, charging through hostile crowds to lead demonstrations and taking no prisoners in her comments to the press, including lashing out at the Americans. And even as it became clear that the Kennedy administration was determined to take down the Diem regime, Madame Nhu boldly traveled to the United States in 1963 to raise money and awareness for her causes.
"Although Madame Nhu had once been on the cover of Time magazine and was one of the most widely watched female political figures in the world, her story was unfairly eclipsed by history, in particular by the assassination of John F. Kennedy," says PublicAffairs publisher Clive Priddle, who served as Demery's editor on "Finding the Dragon Lady." "Monique has simply gone several steps further than anyone else in uncovering the story that was lost."
It wasn't easy. Madame Nhu played what Tom Demery, the author's husband, calls "a cat-and-mouse game," conducting her interviews with Monique Demery entirely on her own terms and on her own erratic schedule. More than once, she agreed to meet with Demery in Paris but failed to show up at the appointed time and place.
"I think she knew in her head that she would never let me past a certain point," Demery says now. "In her own mind, she didn't want me to see her as she really was — which was old, no longer powerful, mostly forgotten and in less-than-golden circumstances."
But although there were certain discrepancies between the idealized version of events that Madame Nhu told Demery and the historical record, the author feels that the older woman was always convinced she was telling the truth. "She believed in her own greatness," Demery says. "She believed in her own myth."
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer.
"Finding the Dragon Lady"
By Monique Brinson Demery, PublicAffairs, 280 pages, $26.99