Finding the Dragon Lady

The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu


By Monique Brinson Demery

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In November 1963, the president of South Vietnam and his brother were brutally executed in a coup that was sanctioned and supported by the American government. President Kennedy later explained to his close friend Paul “Red” Fay that the reason the United States made the fateful decision to get rid of the Ngos was in no small part because of South Vietnam’s first lady, Madame Nhu. “That goddamn bitch,” Fay remembers President Kennedy saying, “She’s responsible … that bitch stuck her nose in and boiled up the whole situation down there.”

The coup marked the collapse of the Diem government and became the US entry point for a decade-long conflict in Vietnam. Kennedy’s death and the atrocities of the ensuing war eclipsed the memory of Madame Nhu — with her daunting mixture of fierceness and beauty. But at the time, to David Halberstam, she was “the beautiful but diabolic sex dictatress,” and Malcolm Browne called her “the most dangerous enemy a man can have.”

By 1987, the once-glamorous celebrity had retreated into exile and seclusion, and remained there until young American Monique Demery tracked her down in Paris thirty years later. Finding the Dragon Lady is Demery’s story of her improbable relationship with Madame Nhu, and — having ultimately been entrusted with Madame Nhu’s unpublished memoirs and her diary from the years leading up to the coup — the first full history of the Dragon Lady herself, a woman who was feared and fantasized over in her time, and who singlehandedly frustrated the government of one of the world’s superpowers.



Paris, 2005

BY THE TIME I STARTED LOOKING for Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, she had been living in exile for over forty years. In 1963, at the height of her fame, the New York Times named the thirty-nine-year-old First Lady of South Vietnam “the most powerful” woman in Asia and likened her to Lucrezia Borgia. But it was Madame Nhu’s reputation as the Dragon Lady that brought her real distinction. When Buddhist monks were setting themselves on fire in the streets of Saigon, Madame Nhu’s response was unspeakably cruel: “Let them burn, and we shall clap our hands,” she had said with a smile. “If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline and a match.” The dangerous, dark-eyed beauty quickly became a symbol of everything wrong with American involvement in the Vietnam War.

Madame Nhu faded from public view after November 1963, when her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and his brother, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, were killed in a coup sanctioned and supported by the US government. As President John F. Kennedy explained to his close friend, Paul “Red” Fay, the United States had to get rid of the Ngo brothers in no small part because of Madame Nhu. “That goddamn bitch,” he said to his friend. “She’s responsible. . . . That bitch stuck her nose in and boiled up the whole situation down there.”

Plenty of books have dissected the events of November 1963 and established the overthrow of the Ngo brothers as pivotal in the American buildup to war in Vietnam. But the historical scholarship about the coup has largely overlooked Madame Nhu’s role. How did a woman who was not even forty years old—and barely five feet tall in heels—come to command the full attention of a superpower like America and embroil the United States in a conflict that would last another decade and take millions of lives?

I was in Paris to find out—although, I had to admit, I was a little nervous. Pulitzer Prize–winning Associated Press reporter Malcolm Browne had written in his memoirs that he knew from “personal experience” that Madame Nhu “could be the most dangerous enemy a man could have.” And that was exactly what was so intriguing. The Dragon Lady image was a Western fantasy of the Orient—sensual, decadent, and dangerous. The wicked stereotype had been applied to powerful Asian women before Madame Nhu, women like Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Soong May-ling and the Chinese empress Xixi. The spectacular treason trial of Tokyo Rose, the voice behind Japanese propaganda during World War II, was still fresh in the American collective memory when Madame Nhu accused Americans in Vietnam of acting like “little soldiers of fortune.” As a result, the public image of Madame Nhu as the Dragon Lady was one-dimensional, like the mustache-twisting villain in a bad Hollywood script, and a little too convenient.

Madame Nhu, whatever you thought about her, had had a direct hand in shaping history. But she had been silent for decades. Despite her reputation for outspokenness, the world had heard little from the woman herself. Madame Nhu had turned the last New York Times reporter who tried to gain access to her away from her doorstep in Italy for being too nosy. That was in 1986.

Although nearly twenty years had passed, there was no reason that I should have any more luck, I told myself as I stared at the building across the street. Just a few hundred meters behind me, the Eiffel Tower soared to its full height. I tried to look inconspicuous as I counted the building’s stories. Tenacious old girl, I thought. As far as the rest of the world knew, including all the so-called experts I had interviewed, Madame Nhu was living in a rundown whitewashed villa somewhere on the outskirts of Rome. It had been anyone’s guess as to whether she was even still alive.

But I had reason to believe that she was here, in Paris.

My search for Madame Nhu began with simple curiosity. I was born in 1976, some seventeen months after the end of the war and a universe apart. Like most kids I knew growing up during the 1980s, my early knowledge about Vietnam came from movies; grownups certainly didn’t talk much about it. Vietnam wasn’t a country; it was a cacophony of thumping helicopter blades, flaming thatched huts, and napalmed jungles. I held onto that perception until my junior year in college, when I enrolled for a semester abroad at Vietnam National University in Hanoi, which I’d thought of as something of a lark. A Communist country in the jungles of Southeast Asia sounded dangerous and exciting; adding to the drama, the State Department recommended getting typhoid, tetanus, and rabies vaccinations, as well as taking along antimalarial drugs and iodine pills. My father was stupefied: “I spent my twenties trying to stay out of Vietnam, and here you go, trying to get in!”

By 2003, I had a master’s degree in Asian studies, had lived in Vietnam twice, and received a US Department of Education scholarship that gave me supreme confidence in my Vietnamese language skills—as long as I was talking about something simple, like a menu or the weather. When it came time to think about getting an actual job, I wished I had done more than pick up a cool CIA pen from the campus job fair.

Rather than face an uncertain future, I sought comfort where I always have—in books. I returned again and again to the second floor of Boston’s Central Library, where the Vietnam books were kept. Four or five men roughly my father’s age and dressed in ill-fitting coats and baggy pants would be sitting around the tables placed at the periphery of the stacks. The smell of stale coffee leeched into the air around them. It was hard for me to reconcile the Vietnam I knew from 2004, the friendly faces, overflowing markets, and modern cities, with the country—and the war—that had ruined so many lives. Who might these men have become if it hadn’t been for Vietnam?

“Life is random,” my father would say, like a mantra. He meant the words to be comforting. It was his way of soothing my naive sense of injustice, of making sense of the world. My father got his draft notice in the mail in 1966, just after his college graduation. He had already been accepted to graduate school and offered a stipend as a teaching assistant, but the draft board rejected his appeal for a deferment. My father’s number all but guaranteed him infantry duty in Vietnam, so, like many in the same predicament, he applied to Officer Candidate School and was accepted into the army. He faced better odds as a volunteer officer candidate than as a draftee on foot patrol.

Just weeks before he was due to report to boot camp, my father was watching television in his parents’ living room. President Lyndon Johnson appeared on the screen and publicly extended the draft deferment to include graduate student teachers. My dad leapt up from the couch and hugged his mother; in short order, he called his local draft board, got his deferment, and unpacked his bags.

He caught hell from the recruiting officers, who were anxious to make their quota, and from his friend Don. Don and my father had carpooled to the university every day for four years. They were from the same neighborhood, a working-class suburb of Seattle, and lived at home with their parents to save money on room and board. They had talked about how education was their ticket out of their families’ poverty. Don had a spot in a graduate program too. He could have used the same deferment as my dad to avoid the draft.

But Don didn’t see the point of deferring. He tried to talk my dad back into enlisting, “just to get it over with,” he reasoned. They would do a quick tour of duty in Southeast Asia before starting the rest of their lives.

Don wasn’t in Vietnam two weeks before his helicopter was shot down and he was killed.

As a little girl, I would stretch on tiptoe to pull the maroon-covered Time-Life book about the Vietnam War down from our living room bookshelves. The photographs were horrible and fascinating and raised more questions for me than the grownups could answer. There was the one of the South Vietnamese policeman shooting a man’s brains out and the image of the little girl running down a road, naked and burning. It was a war I would never begin to understand, I thought, but instead of closing the book, I returned to it time and time again. My favorite was Larry Burrows’ 1962 photo of Madame Nhu. With her piles of black hair and lacquered fingernails, she jumped out from the rest of the war’s drab, olive-clad personalities. Wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress, the flowing ao dai, in virginal white, she was a tiny-waisted creature who could have been described as dainty, except for the heavy, black .38 caliber pistol that she held raised, aimed, and ready to fire. When her brother-in-law, President Ngo Dinh Diem, had once questioned the modesty of Madame Nhu’s slim-fitting tunics, referring to their décolletage, she is said to have silenced him with a withering reply: “It’s not your neck that sticks out, it’s mine. So shut up.”

My fascination as a little girl with Madame Nhu’s glamour gradually evolved into recognition of a very contemporary problem. A female who dressed impeccably and took care to look good would always be accused of a lack of seriousness about changing social policies. Today, Michelle Obama is criticized for her biceps and bangs, but she is only the latest American First Lady to wrestle with questions of style and substance. Jacqueline Kennedy, Madame Nhu’s contemporary in 1963, was an American icon of fashion, elegance, and grace. She believed, at the time, that women should simply stay out of politics because “they’re just not suited to it.” Jackie prided herself on her own “Asiatic” marriage and wholly disapproved of Madame Nhu, who had a “queer thing for power.”

The lack of easy answers about Madame Nhu ensured that my intrigue lingered until I found myself in the library with plenty of underemployed time on my hands. Passing through the vacant gazes of the Vietnam veterans I shared the stacks with, I began to piece together the life of the woman everyone said had caused so much trouble.

I still had only the roughest outlines of Madame Nhu’s story when I landed in Paris two years later. I had followed a flimsy trail based on an article on an obscure Vietnamese-language website written by someone I had never heard of. The author said that he had interviewed the famously reclusive Madame Nhu in her apartment three years before, in 2002. I would have dismissed the claim, but the author had been particularly precise about an eleventh-floor apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower through the kitchen window. The description reminded me of something.

While poking around the papers of Clare Booth Luce at the Library of Congress a few months before, I had found a letter from Madame Nhu, postmarked in 1964. Luce had been an author, a playwright, a US senator, and, as a staunch supporter of ultraconservative Republican politics in Washington, something of a friend to Madame Nhu. The return address scrawled on the back of the envelope had provided my first glimpse of Madame Nhu’s spidery handwriting. When I read about the Eiffel Tower view, I thought back to how carefully I had copied the curls of her script into my notebook: avenue Charles Floquet. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might still be living there, but now I wondered, why not?

One glance and I knew I was wrong. The elegant building on avenue Charles Floquet where she had once lived looked like just the sort of place a deposed dictator might hide in until his money ran out. But it was only eight stories high. Even given the European penchant for designating the floor above the ground floor the first floor, this building was several short of the eleven I had been looking for.

I almost gave up on the spot. Even if the article was right and Madame Nhu was living in Paris, how many hundreds of buildings could boast a view of the Eiffel Tower? She could be a mile away and still see it. The tower was the only thing that stuck up in such a low-lying city. Just as I raised my gaze to the skyline to curse the aesthetics of the most beautiful city in the world, I had a crazy thought. I jumped onto a nearby bench and looked around. Such a low city simply did not have many eleven-story buildings—especially not this section of Paris. I just had to walk until I found one.

I had gone about a block when I saw them: three matching buildings, a mid-century mistake, near the Seine side of the avenue de Suffren. They were all concrete and right angles gone wrong. No matter—the sight of them dazzled me, for each stood a glorious twelve floors high. At the first one, I found a small bundle of a woman in a housecoat sweeping the steps. I approached her tentatively with an “excusez moi” and proceeded to ask, as tactfully as I could, whether there was an old Vietnamese lady who lived in her building on the eleventh floor. She paused just long enough to point to the building next door. “I think you are looking for the woman in number 24,” she said with a little smile and a shake of her head. Maybe I was paranoid, but she seemed to be laughing at me.

She wouldn’t have been the first to doubt me. When I confided to my graduate school advisor that I was thinking of pursuing the Dragon Lady, she had given me a patronizing smile—I assumed because, like everyone else, she thought Madame Nhu was simply too frivolous a topic. It took me longer to understand that my advisor, who had lived in Saigon through Madame Nhu’s reign and seen school friends arrested by the South Vietnamese police, didn’t think Madame Nhu was a subject worth revisiting.

But I was close now. Buoyed by something like confidence, or maybe naive optimism, I buzzed the concierge at 24 avenue de Suffren, and when she appeared, I grinned broadly at her. After she’d let me in, I slid a thin blue envelope inscribed with Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu’s name across the front desk.

“Is she expecting something?” the concierge inquired dully. She was less than polite without being exactly rude, but I didn’t care. She had confirmed that Madame Nhu lived upstairs.

“Please just make sure she gets this,” I replied sweetly. Inside the envelope was a carefully worded note requesting an interview and one of the embossed calling cards I’d had made up in case I needed to make myself look professional. Tomorrow, Madame Nhu would know exactly who I was. As I walked back toward the Metro, I was already running through everything I would say when she called: how I would like to get her story right, how I hoped to fill in the gaps of history, and how I dared to think that we might redeem a little bit of the Dragon Lady’s legacy. It never occurred to me that she might have plans of her own.


Forgotten Graves

NO ONE HAD HEARD FROM Madame Nhu since the summer of 1986—the summer her parents, Tran Van Chuong and Tran Thi Nam Tran, had been murdered.

Madame Nhu’s parents had been well known in diplomatic circles, even briefly famous when they publicly disowned their Dragon Lady daughter in 1963. In Vietnam, the Chuong couple had enjoyed an illustrious pedigree: Chuong was a large landowner and the first Vietnamese lawyer to get a French degree; his wife, Nam Tran, was related to the royal family and had been born a princess. They had lived a grand life in Vietnam before the war, with twenty servants waiting on them hand and foot. Madame Chuong clung to a sense of regal entitlement even in her role as a diplomat’s wife in Washington, DC. When she hosted events, she asked that no one be allowed to wear the imperial color, yellow, except for her.

The Chuongs had lived in Washington since Chuong’s appointment as the South Vietnamese ambassador in 1957. They returned to Vietnam for brief visits in the 1960s, but never after the 1975 Communist victory. The Chuongs were long retired; Madame Nhu’s father was eighty-eight and her mother seventy-six. They were just an elderly couple living out their last days in a quiet suburb of Washington, DC, when their only son killed them in their home. The murders brought the tragic and bizarre family history back into the spotlight.

Madame Nhu did not go to the funeral. By that time, she was growing old herself. She was a sixty-one-year-old recluse living in a shabby villa on the outskirts of Rome with her children. There had been rumors that Madame Nhu had emptied the South Vietnamese treasury before she left the country for the last time, but there was little outward sign of luxury anymore. Piece by piece she had sold off her property. A few straggly olive trees and some grazing sheep were all that separated the grandly named Villa of Serene Light from Rome’s urban sprawl. Her only valuables had been those she managed to squirrel out of Saigon on her person, the jewelry and furs she was wearing and those tucked in her valise. Those were soon gone too. In 1971, Madame Nhu had been the victim of a jewelry heist: thieves made off with $32,000 in gold, jade, and gems.1 Madame Nhu probably would not have been able to afford the trip to Washington, DC, to see her parents buried—at least not in a style that she would have considered fitting.

On Madame Nhu’s last trip to the United States, in October 1963, her parents had left her standing on the doorstep of their Washington home with the door shut firmly in her face. Her father had called her “power mad” and said they “did not wish to know her” anymore. Her mother urged Americans to throw eggs and tomatoes at her.

Talking back would have broken the most sacred Confucian value: filial piety. A child should always respect her parents. The furthest Madame Nhu would go was to suggest that her parents must be “intoxicated.” It was one of Madame Nhu’s favorite lines—she used it against her parents, the international press, and even American president John F. Kennedy. But its meaning in English was not exactly what she intended. Intoxicated in French means poisoned. She meant to suggest that the Communists had poisoned the well of public opinion against her. She was trying to suggest that a desperate Communist tactic was at work—one intended to alienate her family from the Americans. But Madame Nhu didn’t get her message across. Instead she sounded shrill, accusing those she didn’t like of being drunk. After the 1963 coup in Saigon, the press reported that Madame Nhu had reconciled with her father. Chuong said of the rapprochement, “My heart was very near my daughter’s.”

To their neighbors, the Chuongs were just a sweet old couple, the kind who smile at children and puppies and wear sweaters even in the summer. Their home, at 5601 Western Avenue, was a two-story brick Georgian with white trim. The hedges were always neat, the walkway swept clear. Chuong’s doctor described him as a pleasant gentleman, “very friendly,” his wife, somewhat effervescent, always with a smile. It was inconceivable to think that this couple had survived three wars, evaded the colonial secret police, and outwitted the Communist guerrillas only to meet their end on a quiet July night in the seeming safety of their own home.

The police report had been graphic in detailing the discovery of the bodies. Madame Chuong lay on top of her husband. Her right arm was draped around him, as if she had died hugging him. They wore matching striped pajamas, but his were soaked with urine. Madame Chuong’s upper lip was bruised, and she had a scratch under her chin. The red pinpoints on her eyeballs were from petechial hemorrhage, when blood leaks from the eye’s tiny capillaries, a strong indication of death by strangulation or smothering—in this case, probably with a pillow.

All the evidence pointed to the Chuongs’ only son, Tran Van Khiem. Khiem had been left behind in Vietnam in 1963 and had suffered badly. Until then, Khiem had been the scion of a once elite Vietnamese family to whom things had always been handed. When his sister was the First Lady, he was given a seat in the South Vietnamese government’s National Assembly and diplomatic missions to foreign countries. Khiem skated along in typical playboy fashion, but he was fascinated with the inner workings of politics, especially the intrigue. Khiem started rumors that he was the head of a secret security force. He told Australian journalist Denis Warner that he had a hit list of American targets in Saigon that included embassy and military personnel. Madame Nhu’s husband didn’t like him much; he thought Khiem was immature and headstrong. So when Khiem came to the palace to visit his sister, Madame Nhu made sure to close the door to the sitting room or used the bedroom. Nhu and Diem weren’t to know he was there. In fact, it didn’t matter whether the Ngo brothers liked Khiem or not. He was family, and the regime’s umbrella was broad enough to cover him. No real harm could come to him while the Ngos were in power.2

But afterwards, when Madame Nhu was in exile, Khiem was on his own in South Vietnam. The new military junta in Saigon arrested him. His mother tried to intercede from Washington. She called Roger Hilsman at the State Department, begging him to do something to save her only son. He would recall that Madame Chuong had been highly distraught, but even in her hysteria, unsentimental and pragmatic. Khiem was “only a stupid boy,” Madame Chuong pleaded. He was harmless, just someone who had fallen “foolishly under the sway of his older sister,” Madame Nhu.

Madame Chuong’s pleas fell on deaf ears. The American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, might have helped but he had no sympathy. He thought Khiem a “thoroughly reprehensible individual” and would not interfere with what he said, without a trace of irony, was the junta’s “orderly administration of justice.”3 Khiem was locked in a cell in Saigon’s old French prison. Looking back on his time there, he called what they did to him—using sleep deprivation and exhaustion to break his mind—“scientific torture.”4 At least he had been spared the firing squad. The new junta didn’t like holdovers from the old regime that might threaten their power, but apparently they didn’t think Khiem posed much of a threat. Or maybe he was more useful to them alive, an example of what happened to those loyal to the old regime. Madame Nhu’s brother-in-law, Ngo Dinh Can, didn’t fare as well. He was so paralyzed by diabetes left untreated during his incarceration at Chi Hoa Prison that he had to be carried to the courtyard, unable to stand for his own execution.

Khiem was subsequently shipped south to the prison island of Poulo Condor, assigned to hard labor until his broken body matched his fragile mind. Who knows what backroom negotiations got him out of Vietnam and to France, but by then forty-year-old Khiem had the body of an old man. He suffered from a heart condition and a kidney ailment. His other scars, the mental ones, were not immediately as visible.

Khiem couldn’t find a job, and he had a wife and twelve-year-old son to support. His parents came up with an arrangement that was supposed to save face: they said they needed him to move in with them now that they were getting old. By allowing Khiem, his wife, and son to live with them in Washington, his parents were helping him just as much as he was, in theory, going to be helping them. But it never really worked out. Family dinners dissolved into shouting matches, political disagreements about history long past in a country that no longer existed.

The Chuongs had been working up the courage to kick him out when Khiem discovered their will. He had been disinherited. In a witnessed letter, Madame Chuong had written in a neat, tight script that her son had “behaved all his life like an exceptionally ungrateful and bad son and has been too often to his parents a great source of worries and deep sorrow. Such behavior cannot be forgotten and forgiven in a traditional Vietnamese family.”

With all the evidence against him, the Chuong murders should have been an open-and-shut case, but it dragged on. At question was not whether Khiem killed his parents—that was clear. The problem was determining whether he had the mental capacity to stand trial for two premeditated murders. Khiem’s legal team challenged the court order forcing him to take psychotropic drugs that would render him competent, but because of the lack of legal precedents, it took seven years’ worth of appeals for a determination to stick. Khiem’s bizarre behavior and courtroom theatrics, railing against the drugs’ side effects, didn’t speed the process.

Khiem’s mental state didn’t improve during his seven years as a forensic patient at St. Elizabeth’s, a psychiatric hospital in southeastern Washington, DC. The institution was like a parody of an insane asylum: thousands of brains were preserved in formaldehyde, and an on-site incinerator fueled rumors about what happened to the victims of botched lobotomies and CIA-tested chemical cocktails like “truth serums.” During Khiem’s time there, the most basic facilities of the massive, red-turreted building evidenced years of neglect. Equipment failures and medicine shortages occurred frequently, and the heating system was broken for weeks at a time.5 Khiem stayed at St. Elizabeth’s until 1993. The Supreme Court rejected his appeal when it became clear that Khiem would never be competent enough to participate in his own defense. He was deported to France and has not been heard from since.6 Whenever I asked Madame Nhu about her brother, I was met with silence. At most she would say, “Of course he is still alive!” but I never found any trace of him.

Years of prison and torture had twisted Khiem’s brain. He believed he was at the center of a Zionist conspiracy—he wrote as much in a letter to Ronald Reagan, and that was before he tried to get the US president subpoenaed to testify in his defense. The thought of living on his own, cut off from his parents’ wealth, snapped the fragile threads that connected Khiem to reality. Whatever wild thoughts had been running through his mind as he asphyxiated his frail and elderly parents with a pillow in their bedroom, Madame Nhu showed a kind of sympathy. Had she stayed in South Vietnam, who knows what she would have suffered? Her younger brother was in no way as notorious as she was; she would have fared much worse.


  • Kirkus Reviews
    “Engagingly provocative…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.”

    Booklist online
    “The book restores Madame Nhu to her proper place in history, as a ruthless and brilliant woman without whose manipulations the war in Vietnam might have turned out very differently… this frequently surprising book brings its subject back from exile.”

    Daily Beast
    “Deeply hell of a story.”

    Alexia Nader, Kirkus Reviews
    “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…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.”

    Publishers Weekly
    “Illuminating… shed[s] light on one of the country's most controversial figures.”
  • Craig R. Whitney, Vietnam War correspondent and author of Living with Guns
    “In the early days of America's engagement in Vietnam, no one played a greater role than Madame Nhu in shaping the Saigon regime's anti-Communist fervor.  But who was the Dragon Lady, really?  This superb portrait reveals her self-doubts, conveys the fierce persona she developed to overcome them, and explains how her zealotry doomed the regime and condemned her to a life in exile.”

    David Lamb, author, Vietnam, Now: A Reporter Returns
    “Here is the last untold story of the Vietnam war, the riveting, intimate and ultimately tragic profile of Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, South Vietnam's unofficial First Lady whose political power and ruthlessness earned her the nickname The Dragon Lady. In her life, which ended in exile and isolation in 2011, are the seeds of America's ill-fated military involvement in Vietnam. Monique Demery spent ten years tracking down the elusive Dragon Lady. Her diligence has produced a laudatory book that is at once scholarly and as readable as a good mystery.”
  • Elizabeth Becker, author of When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge
    “Even those familiar with the history of Vietnam will be astonished at the bizarre case of Madame Nhu. Monique Demery tracks down the original Vietnamese 'Dragon Lady' who confesses to weaknesses and heartbreak but refuses to take responsibility for her role in the war that ruined so many lives in her country and ours.”

    Robert K. Brigham, Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar College
    Finding the Dragon Lady is a truly monumental achievement. Demery has vividly captured the life and times of one of Vietnam's most intriguing figures. Beautifully told, and exhaustively researched in French, Vietnamese, and American sources—including interviews with Madame Nhu—Demery's book is now the standard for understanding the cultural politics of South Vietnam's first family.”
  • Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal
    “A fascinating portrait of this polarizing figure …[a] fair-minded and readable look at Madame Nhu and her prominent role in the early years of the Vietnam War…This book performs an especially valuable service to readers who want to understand why the U.S. sometimes stumbles in foreign affairs….The book benefits from a firm understanding of Vietnamese traditions. …In the end, Demery admits that she ultimately became Madame Nhu's "friend," an admission that makes the reader admire the biographer even more for being so clear-eyed about her subject's flaws.”

    San Francisco Chronicle
    “Demery succeeds in painting such a nuanced picture of this powerful woman that by the time we reach Madame Nhu's 1963 U.S. press tour, we can sympathize with her desire to defend her country… ‘Finding the Dragon Lady' is a brave book. Demery realized that ‘I had been handed the chance to breathe some life into the remote, exotic place in history to which she had been assigned,' and she took that opportunity to push beyond the conventional understanding of this painful and polarizing era. It's a testament to her deep knowledge of Vietnamese and American culture that she leaves us wondering what might have been.”

On Sale
Sep 24, 2013
Page Count
280 pages

Monique Brinson Demery

About the Author

Monique Brinson Demery took her first trip to Vietnam in 1997 as part of a study abroad program with Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She was the recipient of a US Department of Education grant to attend the Vietnamese Advanced Summer Institute in Hanoi, and in 2003, she received a Masters degree in East Asia Regional Studies from Harvard University. Demery’s initial interviews with Madame Nhu in 2005 were the first that she had given to any Westerner in nearly twenty years. Demery lives in Chicago, Illinois.

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