Finding the Dragon Lady, Monique Brinson Demery. New York: Public Affair, 2013.
Summary: A biography of Madame Nhu, part of the ruling family in Vietnam (1954-1963) based on the author’s personal interactions with Madame Nhu before her death, allowing her to obtain memoirs and a diary of her life.
She grew up in a distinguished Vietnamese family in Hanoi under the French, receiving the typical French education, with the expectation of being married off into another distinguished family. At nineteen Tran Le Xuan married Ngo Dinh Nhu, in the middle of World War 2 as the Vichy French enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Japanese. At the end of the war, the French assumption that they could resume control of the colony was upset by nationalist forces under Ho Chi Min and the Viet Minh. Madame Nhu engages in a harrowing flight with her children, only reunited with her husband later. They take refuge in the mountain retreat of Dalat while war goes on between France and the Viet Minh. The French lose a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu, resulting in a division of the country into north and south with Madame Nhu’s brother-in-law Ngo Dinh Diem heading the government with her husband as his right hand man.
At first it seems the model family, buttressed by Diem’s austere integrity. Madame Nhu raises children and leads efforts to help women while the men run the country. Increasingly as dissatisfaction arises and Communist insurgency by the Viet Cong grows, Madame Nhu asserts herself increasingly at points where the two men waver, sometimes courageously against opposition. She becomes known as the Dragon Lady, not to be crossed. When Buddhists use self-immolation to protest government restrictions on their religious freedom, she tells those threatening to go ahead and she would bring the matches. Her efforts to strengthen the government lead to the disaffection of the people, and confounds the US Kennedy administration, now committed to the success of the Republic of South Vietnam. Increasingly the conviction is that the Diem government must go, and the Kennedys and ambassador Lodge conspire for a coup to bring down the government, succeeding at the end of October 1963 when Nhu and Diem both are killed. Madame Nhu, touring the US to drum up support for the government escapes death to live in exile for the rest of her life.
One may find much of this in any history. The unusual element of this book is Monique Brinson Demery’s narrative of her attempts, beginning in 2005, to connect with Madame Nhu to hear her side of the story. After numerous efforts received no response, she got a call one day laying down strict conditions. Then more calls in which Madame Nhu tested her to see if she could be trusted. There were invitations to meet. Madame Nhu never showed up. Meanwhile the author obtained a diary in Madame Nhu’s hand from a serviceman, filling in more of her personal narrative and leading to more questions. Madame Nhu dangled a manuscript of a memoir in front of her in exchange for more favors and more strict conditions. Finally she obtains it, a manuscript in very unfinished form that she must publish as is.
In 2011 Madame Nhu died. The author didn’t publish the manuscript but instead this book of her search for and interactions with Madame Nhu, interleaved with a biography of her life, informed by research and the new materials in Madame Nhu’s hand she received. What emerges is a portrait of a woman in an unhappy marriage longing for so much more who eventually finds it in the cause of the Diem government. We see a mother who loves her children, who acts with courage, but also with ruthlessness, and who pushes the boundaries of what women could do in her society. One also has the sense of a family increasingly isolated from the aspirations of the people, confounding American support, and yet also the first step into the developing American tragedy that was Vietnam. Like Iraq, they were eliminated with no replacement in sight, resulting in a series of weak governments, a growing American involvement propping up that government and the fall of the south to the Communists in 1975.
Demery offers a concise retelling of this tragic history through Madame Nhu’s eyes while remaining objective and able to see her faults, faults that contributed to her family’s downfall and the unraveling of the country. Even in her old age, in her interactions with Demery, we see a woman who uses manipulation to try to tell her story her way, against the grain of reality. She tells the story of a woman alone, fighting to the end to validate her life as meaningful.