An independent scholar’s engagingly provocative account of her encounters with the once-reviled former first lady of South Vietnam, Madame Nhu.
Demery’s obsession with the infamous “Dragon Lady” of Southeast Asia began when she was a child. As an adult, she came to realize that the glamour that had captivated her also encapsulated a very contemporary problem for women involved in politics. Apart from what she actually accomplished, any powerful female who also looked good would always be a media target. Not surprisingly, little of substance had been written about Madame Nhu, who went into seclusion in 1986; yet Demery managed to track her down to an apartment in Paris. For more than five years, the two carried on a conversation via phone and email that often seemed like an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, with Madame Nhu constantly testing Demery and holding herself “just out of reach.” The young scholar still managed to learn that Madame Nhu grew up an unloved and neglected child. But shrewd personal choices allowed her to outdo either of her coddled sisters and marry the brother of the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dihn Diem. Fiery and theatrical, Madame Nhu seized the opportunity to play an important role in her future by “launch[ing] herself into the political vacuum created by a distant pen-pushing prime minister and his furtive brother.” Not only did she take on the traditional “hostess” responsibilities of first lady, she also helped enact legislation to uplift the status of women while working behind the scenes to stave off coup attempts from rebel communist forces. However, her beauty and outspokenness worked against her in conservative Kennedy-era America, which eventually supported the uprising that killed both her husband and President Diem. Smart and well-researched, Demery’s biography offers insight into both an intriguing figure and the complicated historical moment with which she became eternally identified.
A welcome addition to the literature on Vietnam.