When Vietnamese Buddhist monks started setting themselves on fire in the early 1960s to protest brutality and corruption in her brother-in-law’s regime, Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu’s reaction was not sympathetic. She called them “barbecues” and vowed to bring mustard to the next one.
Madame Nhu was born Tran Le Xuan, or “Beautiful Spring,” to the daughter of a Vietnamese princess and her lawyer husband, said The New York Times. Raised as a Buddhist, she converted to Catholicism upon marrying Ngo Dinh Nhu, who came to control the secret police in the authoritarian regime of his bachelor brother, Ngo Dinh Diem. During Diem’s presidency, from 1955 to 1963, she became “the glamorous official hostess in South Vietnam’s presidential palace.”
The “diminutive and wasp-waisted” beauty exerted a powerful influence on the government, said The Washington Post, through her “sex appeal, fist-pounding persistence, and sporadic charm offensives.” When she heard that a general was bragging that he would hold a coup and take Madame Nhu as his concubine, she told him that if he ever did, “you will never have me because I will claw your throat out first.” Comments like that earned her the nickname “the Dragon Lady.”
“Branded an icon of women’s rights,” said the London Telegraph, Madame Nhu formed an elite women’s paramilitary corps and banned polygamy and beauty contests, but also abortion and contraception. She was in Beverly Hills in 1963 when she learned that her husband and brother-in-law had been killed in a U.S.-supported coup. She lived the rest of her life in France and Italy, never returning to Vietnam.