ROME – Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, the outspoken beauty who served as South Vietnam’s unofficial first lady early on in the Vietnam War and earned the nickname “Dragon Lady” for her harsh criticism of protesting Buddhist monks and communist sympathizers, has died at age 86, a Rome funeral home said Wednesday.
She died on Easter Sunday in a Rome hospital. The Gualandri funeral home said she was registered as Tran Le Xuan, her original Vietnamese name, meaning “Beautiful Spring.”
Madame Nhu lived in the former presidential palace in South Vietnam’s capital, Saigon, with her husband, the powerful head of the secret police, and his bachelor brother, President Ngo Dinh Diem, who served from 1955 to 1963. She took on the role of first lady as U.S.-backed South Vietnam fought northern communist forces before Washington broadened its military effort.
In the early 1960s, the trendsetting Madame Nhu was often photographed with her bouffant hairdo and glamorous clothes, including a tight version of the traditional silk tunic known as the ao dai, which showcased her slender body. She was equally well known for her fiery rhetoric, and was particularly outspoken against Buddhist monks who were setting themselves on fire to protest Diem’s crackdown – once saying she would “clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others.”
She was in the United States on a speaking tour on Nov. 1, 1963, when her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was killed along with Diem in a U.S.-backed coup, ending his eight-year rule.
Madame Nhu went into exile in Italy and remained in Europe until her death.