Lives of the Incredibly Awesome: “The Dragon Lady”

As official hostess to the unmarried president of South Vietnam—her brother-in-law, Ngo Dinh Diem—Madame Nhu was anything but diplomatic. She was known for threatening Diem’s aides, allies, and critics; referring to the public self-immolations of Buddhist monks as “barbecues;” and wasn’t shy about pointing a gun around. While American soldiers and journalists called her “The Dragon Lady” because of her resemblance to the villain in the comic strip “Terry and the Pirates,” Madame Nhu wasn’t all bad. For example, after winning a seat in the National Assembly in 1956, she pushed through measures that increased women’s rights. Below are more instances of this complex and complicated character’s awesomeness:

  • She resisted an arranged marriage, choosing instead to marry Ngo Dinh Nhu, who would eventually become the chief political adviser to his brother and head of the secret police and special forces.
  • Petite and glamorous, she made the form-fitting ao dai her signature outfit, modifying the national dress with a low-cut neckline. When President Diem questioned the modesty of her dress, she snapped back: “It’s not your neck that sticks out, it’s mine.” Over stepping her bounds more than once, she was eventually exiled to a convent in Hong Kong. However, the president soon reconsidered and brought her back.
  • After overhearing the head of the army, Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh, brag that he would overthrow the president and make her his mistress, Madame Nhu confronted him at a Saigon party. “You are never going to overthrow this government because you don’t have the guts,” she told him “And if you do overthrow it, you will never have me because I will claw your throat out first.”
  • She survived being held hostage for four months by communist troops, an air-raid on the presidential palace, in which she fell through a bomb hole in her bedroom to the basement two floors below, and the coup d’état that killed her brother-in-law and husband.

For more on Madame Nhu and other amazing lives, buy The Obits: The New York Times Annual 2012, a new annual that collects the best of The New York Times obituaries from the previous year. And check back next week, for the final installment of Snippets of the Lives of the Incredibly Awesome.

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