In 40 A.D., the fabled Trung sisters rode elephants into battle to free Vietnam from its Chinese invaders. Nearly 2,000 years later, Ngo Dinh Nhu fancied herself a modern-day Trung, defending her country against communist rebels and American imperialists.
Madame Nhu, as she wished to be called, preferred limousines to elephants but was no less formidable. Sister-in-law of South Vietnam's bachelor president, Ngo Dinh Diem, she was the de facto first lady of the Diem regime of the 1950s and early '60s; her husband was head of the secret police.
She raised her own army of female paramilitarists and pushed through laws against adultery and for women's right to a profession. She was a legendary beauty who also wielded one of the sharpest tongues in the land, lashing out against the pope, her ambassador father and, most infamously, against the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest her family's authoritarian rule.
"Let them burn! And we shall clap our hands," she declared as the country spiraled ever deeper into anarchy. She welcomed more "barbecues," a choice of words that stunned with its callousness and that she later blamed on her imperfect English.
The regime fell not long after, but her reputation as the "Dragon Lady" lived on, even as she retreated into exile in Rome, where, according to the Associated Press, she died on Easter Sunday. She was believed to be 86.
Born in 1924, she was raised in privilege as the daughter of an aristocratic, landowning family in Hanoi. Her maiden name was Tran Le Xuan, which means Beautiful Spring. She did not complete high school but studied ballet and once performed a solo at Hanoi's national theater. Her French was said to be better than her Vietnamese.
At 16 she met her future husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was chief archivist at the Indo-China library. When they married in 1944, she converted from Buddhism to her husband's Roman Catholic faith. In later years she was often seen with a diamond-encrusted cross on a chain around her neck.
In 1946, the Indochina War erupted. Madame Nhu and her infant daughter were captured and held prisoner in a communist-held village for several months, until French forces arrived and she was reunited with her husband. The anti-colonialist and anti-communist Nhus began mobilizing support for Vietnamese independence from the French, a goal reached in 1954 when her brother-in-law, Diem, was named premier of the southern half of the newly partitioned country.
South Vietnam was a shambles, with the economy and the government in disarray. Rivals openly plotted to topple Diem, including a general who boasted that he would exile everyone except the dainty Madame Nhu, whom he would make his mistress. According to a Time magazine report, she confronted the general at a party, warning that if he ever managed to succeed with his plan, "you will never have me because I will claw your throat out first." Her public comments were so vociferous and barbed that at one point her family shipped her off to a convent in Hong Kong while they attempted to smooth relations with potential usurpers.
Compared with her husband and brother-in-law, she relished the limelight. According to David Halberstam's book "The Making of a Quagmire," Madame Nhu was "the only one of the family who walked the way a dictator should walk -- with flair and obvious enjoyment, trailed by a line of attendants -- turning slowly first to the right, then to the left in acknowledging the crowd. It was always a virtuoso performance."
Americans got a firsthand look at Nhu in the fall of 1963, when she arrived for a three-week tour of several U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Saying her purpose was to "set the record straight" on conditions in her Southeast Asian nation, she addressed audiences in hotel ballrooms and on college campuses, often in defiant tones, to dispel what she said were distorted media reports about conditions in her homeland. She denied that her husband was the real ruler of South Vietnam and mocked American economic aid, particularly shipments of milk, which was foreign to Vietnamese diets. She said her father, Tran Van Chuong, who had recently quit as ambassador to the U.S., actually had been fired.
At nearly every stop, news stories took note of her imperially long, lacquered nails, her bodice-hugging tunics and her diminutive height, which was reported to be 5 feet 2 in stilettos.
She ended her tour in Los Angeles, where she was hosted by Mayor Sam Yorty and addressed a crowd of 1,700 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. On Nov. 1, 1963, she was ensconced at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel when a military coup toppled the Diem government. She soon learned that her husband and President Diem had been slain in the takeover. She wasted no time accusing the U.S. of complicity and called the murders "an indelible stigma against the United States."
Mobbed by reporters, she went into seclusion at the Bel-Air mansion of friends. An aide said she had been left penniless by the coup. She eventually flew to Rome, where she and her four children sought refuge with another brother-in-law, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc.
In the following decades, the widow made few public statements, perhaps because she demanded $1,000 per interview. In Saigon immediately after the coup, an angry mob had attacked a statue of the Trung sisters that she had built. They beheaded the one that was said to have been carved in the likeness of the Dragon Lady.
Tragedies continued to strike her family. In 1967, one of her daughters was killed in a car crash. In 1986, her parents were found murdered in their Washington, D.C., home. Her brother, Tran Van Khiem, was accused in the deaths by prosecutors who theorized that he strangled them after learning he had been disinherited. Deemed mentally unfit, he was never tried and was held in an institution until 1993.
"Everyone calls me the Dragon Lady," the madame once said. But she preferred to compare herself to a dragonfly from a famous Vietnamese song. "When it's happy," she said, "it stays; when it's unhappy, it flies away."