By JOSEPH R. GREGORY
Madame Nhu at the Saigon airport in 1963.
Madame Nhu, who as the glamorous official hostess in South Vietnam’s presidential palace became a politically powerful and often harshly outspoken figure during the Vietnam War, died on Sunday in Rome, where she had been living.
She was believed to be 87.
Her death was confirmed by her sister, Lechi Oggeri.
Born in 1924 — the exact date is uncertain, though some sources say April 15 — she spent the last four decades living in Rome and in southern France.
Her parents named her Tran Le Xuan, or “Beautiful Spring.”
As the official hostess to the unmarried president of South Vietnam, her brother-in-law, she was formally known as Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu.
But to the American journalists, diplomats and soldiers caught up in the intrigues of Saigon in the early 1960s, she was “the Dragon Lady,” a symbol of everything that was wrong with the American effort to save her country from Communism.
In those years, before the United States had deepened its military involvement in the war, Madame Nhu thrived in the eye of her country’s gathering storm as the wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu, the younger brother and chief political adviser to Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam from 1955 until 1963.
While her husband controlled the secret police and special forces, Madame Nhu acted as a forceful counterweight to the diffident president, badgering Diem’s aides, allies and critics with unwelcome advice, public threats and subtle manipulations.
Then, after both men were murdered in a military coup mounted with the tacit support of the United States, she slipped into obscurity.
In her years in the spotlight, when she was in her 30s, she was beautiful, well coiffed and petite.
She made the form-fitting ao dai her signature outfit, modifying the national dress with a deep neckline. Whether giving a speech, receiving diplomats or reviewing members of her paramilitary force of 25,000 women, she drew photographers like a magnet.
But it was her impolitic penchant for saying exactly what she thought that drew world attention.
When, during Diem’s early days in power, she heard that the head of the army, Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh, was bragging that he would overthrow the president and make her his mistress, she confronted him at a Saigon party.
“You are never going to overthrow this government because you don’t have the guts,” Time magazine quoted her as telling the startled general.
“And if you do overthrow it, you will never have me because I will claw your throat out first.”
Her “capacity for intrigue was boundless,” William Prochnau wrote in “Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles” (1995).
So was her hatred of the American press.
“Madame Nhu looked and acted like the diabolical femme fatal in the popular comic strip of the day, ‘Terry and the Pirates,’ “ Mr. Prochnau wrote.
“Americans gave her the comic-strip character’s name: the Dragon Lady.”
In the pivotal year of 1963, as the war with the North worsened, discontent among the South’s Buddhist majority over official corruption and failed land reform efforts fueled protests that culminated in the public self-immolations of several Buddhist monks.
Shocking images of the fiery suicides raised the pressure on Diem, as did Madame Nhu’s well-publicized reaction.
She referred to the suicides as “barbecues” and told reporters, “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.”
Beautiful Spring was the youngest of two daughters born to Nam Tran Chuong, herself the daughter of an imperial Vietnamese princess, and Tran Van Chuong, a patrician lawyer who later became Diem’s ambassador to Washington.
As a willful girl, she bullied her younger brother, Khiem Van Tran, and was more devoted to the piano and the ballet than to her studies.
She later resisted any arranged marriage, choosing in 1943 to wed one of her mother’s friends, Ngo Dinh Nhu.
Fifteen years her senior, he was from a prominent Hue family of Roman Catholics who opposed both French colonial rule and the Communist rebels.
Tran Le Xuan, raised a Buddhist, embraced her new family’s faith as well as its politics.
As World War II ended, Vietnam’s battle for independence intensified.
In 1946, Communist troops overran Hue, taking Madame Nhu, her infant daughter and aging mother-in-law prisoner.
They were held for four months in a remote village with little food and no comforts before being freed by the advancing French.
After she was reunited with her husband, the family lived quietly for the next few years, an interlude that Madame Nhu would later refer to as her “happy time.”
She and her husband would eventually have four children, two boys and two girls.
In 1955, Diem became president of the newly independent South Vietnam, his authority menaced by private armies, gangsters and disloyal officers like General Hinh.
Madame Nhu publicly urged Diem to act.
This only embarrassed him, and he exiled her to a convent in Hong Kong.
Then he reconsidered, took her advice, smashed his opponents and forced Hinh into exile.
Madame Nhu returned, complaining that life in the convent had been “just like the Middle Ages.”
But then, so was the lot of most Vietnamese women.
After winning a seat in the National Assembly in 1956, Madame Nhu pushed through measures that increased women’s rights.
She also orchestrated government moves to ban contraceptives and abortion, outlaw adultery, forbid divorce and close opium dens and brothels.
“Society,” she declared, “cannot sacrifice morality and legality for a few wild couples.”
Meanwhile, she kept a tight emotional hold on the president.
According to a C.I.A. report, Diem came to think of his sister-in-law like a spouse.
She “relieves his tension, argues with him, needles him, and, like a Vietnamese wife, is dominant in the household,” the report said.
It also said that their relationship was definitely not sexual.
When Diem, who was notoriously prudish, once questioned the modesty of Madame Nhu’s low-cut dress, she was said to have snapped back: “It’s not your neck that sticks out, it’s mine. So shut up.”
In fact, both their lives were on the line.
In 1962, renegade Vietnamese Air Force pilots bombed and strafed the presidential palace.
Diem was not hurt.
Madame Nhu fell through a bomb hole in her bedroom to the basement two floors below, suffering cuts and bruises.
Vietnamese officers were judged by their loyalty to Diem and Nhu, who kept their best troops close to Saigon, to the exasperation of the Americans.
As Communist strength grew, the South’s internal stresses mounted.
Diem sought compromise with dissidents, but he was undercut by the Nhus.
In August 1963, thousands of Buddhists were arrested and interned.
In Washington, Madame Nhu’s father declared that Diem’s government had done more damage than even the Communists and resigned as ambassador; her mother, South Vietnam’s observer at the United Nations, also quit.
“We do not wish to know her,” they said.
That fall, Madame Nhu went on an American speaking tour, criticizing Diem’s critics as soft on communism. She was in Los Angeles on Nov. 1 when news flashed that Diem and her husband had been shot to death in a coup.
“The deaths were murders,” she told reporters, “either with the official or unofficial blessing of the American government.”
Refused permission to return to Vietnam, she and her children moved to Rome to be near her brother-in-law law, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc.
In July 1966, in a vehemently anti-American interview with a French journalist, she expressed sympathy for the Vietnamese Communists and declared that America preaches “the liberty of the jungle.”
In 1967, her eldest daughter, Le Thuy, was killed in an automobile accident in France.
In 1986, her parents were found strangled in their Washington home.
Her brother, Khiem, was charged in the killings, motivated, according to the authorities, by the fact that he had been disinherited.
In 1993, after seven years in a mental hospital, he was declared mentally incompetent but harmless, and released.
As time passed Madame Nhu declined to be interviewed, but in November 1986 she agreed to answer questions in an exchange of letters with The New York Times.
In these statements she continued to blame the United States for the fall of South Vietnam and for her brother’s arrest.
Asked to describe her daily life, she wrote, “Outer life such as writing and reading has never seemed interesting enough to be talked about, while inner life, more than a secret, is a mystery that cannot be so easily disclosed.”