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Demery’s story of her improbable relationship with Madame Nhu, and — having ultimately been entrusted with Madame Nhu’s unpublished memoirs and her diary from the years leading up to the coup — the first full history of the Dragon Lady herself, a woman who was feared and fantasized over in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.

  • 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.”
  • 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.”

    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.”
  • 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
Oct 7, 2014
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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