SHE WAS A BITCH, but the camera loved her. To most of the western world she was the antithesis of the modern American woman of the 1960s: brash, outspoken, and domineering. Regardless, Madame Nhu, who died only a few days ago, is and always will be an icon of the 20th century. Like a dagger in a sheath ready for murder, Madame Nhu was not at all sartorially oblivious. With her extremely tight fitting dresses and deep necklines, diamond crucifix necklace, bouffant hair-do and perfect eyebrows, photogs ate her up. She could've been a member of an all girl doo-wop group - one of Phil Spector's protégés. But beyond the surface, Madame Nhu has always been embroiled in heated political environments and this time it would spill over with incredible vengeance and blood.
Nhu's life reads like a movie script - with all the right players in all the right places - sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Madame Nhu, who was born Tran Le Xuan 1924 to an aristocratic family, would go on to marry Ngo Đinh Nhu, who was the brother and chief adviser to President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. After the dissolution of French Indochine, Vietnam was divided into a communist north, ruled by the wiry Marxist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, and a republican South ruled by Emperor Bao Dai, who would appoint Ngo Dinh as president. The republican south was constantly at war with itself. With corrupt officials, generals - violence constantly threatened the regime. The regime's loudest, most controversial figure was Madame Nhu and everyone was well aware she was the one calling the shots inside the Presidential Palace. Madame Nhu became a thorn in everyone's side - a spokeswoman of a corrupted, fat-off-the-land South Vietnam that stood for everything the communist north despised.
As the sixties wore on and a war between two Vietnams intensified, the intrigue was too hard for America to resist. South Vietnam would also became a thorn in America's side in their efforts to squash the communist North. It was as if Madame Nhu was a symbol, a siren of the trifecta that would bring three worlds together into a bloody conflict that would last nearly a decade. But all this war was all too familiar to a Vietnam fighting for its independence for close to eighty years; everyone knows practice makes perfect.
On November 1, 1963, while Madame Nhu was is Beverly Hills with her 18 year old daughter, President Diem and Nhu, his brother and her husband, were killed in a supposed American backed assassination in a coup d'état led by a Southern general. Two sons and an infant daughter were still trapped in Vietnam at the family retreat - Madame Nhu feared the worst. She later learned they were safe and they joined Madame Nhu in exile in Rome where she lived until her death at 84 on April 24. She is survived by two sons and a daughter. What we have left to illustrate the strange, complicated and miraculous story are the striking images of a young, vivacious Madame Nhu making her stately duties around town as the 'first lady' of the State of Vietnam: shooting a .38 caliber pistol, attending a funeral, and generally looking proud over some invisible horizon, albeit with a hint of fatalistic ambivalence about the unknown future, an ambivalence constantly gripping her heart with what must have been a vice like grip.
Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper for Pas Un Autre