For 10 years, Monique Demery, a newcomer to journalism, wrestled with a biographical subject who is either the best or the worst a writer could have. Her subject for Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu is Tran Le Xuan—widely known as Madame Nhu—the First Lady of South Vietnam from 1954-1963.
Along with her husband, Ngô Ðình Nhu, and brother-in-law, Ngô Ðình Diêm, Madame Nhu brought about many of the events leading to the Vietnam War. All the while, she exuded glamour and possessed a sharp and at times Delphic public voice. Her persona fascinated and enraged Americans—including John F. Kennedy—and Vietnamese alike; she was given the derogatory nickname the Dragon Lady in America, and, because dragons are highly respected in Vietnam, was known as the Tiger Lady in her home country.
Once seemingly larger-than-life, Madame Nhu was relegated to a footnote in Vietnamese history in the 50 years that have passed since the coup that ousted the Diêm regime. Demery became familiar with the First Lady’s story while pursuing an East Asia Regional Studies degree at Harvard University in the early 2000s, and quickly realized that there was more to it than what was on record. “She was so one-dimensional,” Demery explains. “What was written about her either made her sound totally terrible or like she was a person who shouldn’t be taken seriously because she was just a woman.”
During a trip to Paris, Demery decided to track down the octogenarian recluse Madame Nhu to see if she would tell her story. To Demery’s surprise, Madame Nhu agreed to a phone correspondence. That’s when the author’s troubles with her subject—and the stuff of her book— were born. Demery believes she gained Madame Nhu’s confidence simply because she was young, in awe of her subject, and thus unthreatening. “She was very good at directing what we would talk about and when we would talk about it, and I didn’t really have a choice—I just went along with it. I’m not sure that any hard-nosed reporter would have been patient enough to sit through the conversations,” she explains.
The elderly Madame Nhu’s antics were formidable. She gave Demery a series of tests, including tracking down lost photos of the tiger skins kept at the Independence Palace in Saigon; cut off the phone correspondence for a year after Demery expressed the slightest amount of skepticism of her story; and, most frustratingly for Demery, dangled promises of an in-person meeting and handing over her complete written memoirs. Demery was also led to believe that she had the only first-person account of Madame Nhu’s life. But after Madame Nhu’s death in 2011, Demery started to hear rumors that her subject had one last surprise in store. Madame Nhu had given her memoirs to two other people—Truong Phu Thu, a Vietnamese writer living in Seattle, and a woman whom, according to Demery, Madame Nhu considered a godchild and lives in France.
“She was totally playing me,” Demery says bluntly. “But this is in keeping with her being so protective of herself and smart.” Demery dealt with Madame Nhu’s difficult behavior in the best way possible, using it to benefit her book. In Finding the Dragon Lady, Demery’s trials interviewing Madame Nhu accompany vignettes from the First Lady’s life and a judicious analysis of the Diêm regime. Demery’s writing on the lead-up to the Vietnam War is precise and balanced: She carefully represents the ill-fated, passive-aggressive relationship between the Diêm government and the American government, which propped up the South Vietnamese rulers only to pull the rug out from under them in 1963 by tacitly approving a coup d’état.
When discussing Madame’s Nhu as a leader, however, Demery’s criticism is gentle. Madame Nhu had the best intentions for her country, Demery explains, but her decisions—like when she called the Buddhist monks who were self-immolating in protest of her regime “barbecues”— weren’t always the best for her country or for her own political interests.
“She was a product of her time and her place. She came from this crazy chaotic mix of Indochina at the end of the French colonial era and beginning of the Americans coming in,” Demery explains. “There were no real women role models for her to emulate, so she had to forge her own way. Would any of us coming from that background have acted differently?”
Finding the Dragon Lady stands out from most biographies of political leaders: It emphasizes, rather than conceals, the competing narratives of an unreliable and manipulative subject. Demery felt that she had to write an especially transparent book because of her inability to maintain a critical distance from Madame Nhu, especially as she became a “maternal figure” to the author. In the book, Demery writes about how disappointed she was when she finally received Madame Nhu’s memoirs only to discover that they weren’t especially illuminating, adhering to a self-serving (and deeply religious) narrative. When a diary that Madame Nhu had kept in the 1960s surfaced after her death, Demery was able to compare a private narrative of her subject, with both the semi-public one of her phone conversations, and the public memoirs.
It was ultimately Demery’s candid way of writing and structuring her biography that won her the battle with her subject. Her book reveals the many masks Madame Nhu wore to guard herself against the public (and even the author), and gives stark glimpses of the woman underneath. Nevertheless, the impression Demery gives of Madame Nhu is flattering: She was worthy of respect for her intelligence and determination. The Dragon Lady mask was speciously protective for Madame Nhu throughout her life, and proved to be of most use to American politicians in the '60s seeking to discredit the First Lady. Demery knows that Tran Le Xuan looks better without it.
Alexia Nader is a freelance writer and an associate editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly. Her work has appeared on the websites of The Oxford American, The New Yorker and in the Los Angeles Review of Books.