TIME History

Remembering Madame Nhu: The Polarizing Face of South Vietnam

A complicated, profoundly polarizing character, Vietnam's Madame Nhu was, in a way, an ideal representative of an era and a conflict that rebuffed easy generalization.

Tran Le Xuan, better known as “Madame Nhu,” was a woman who defied simple categorization. The wife of Ngo Dinh Nhu, brother of unmarried South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, she was the de facto first lady of the country. Sultry, outspoken and often callous, she riveted the international press even as she shocked them, and her compatriots, with blunt opinions and pronouncements. For example, she notoriously referred to the public self-immolations of Buddhist monks—who burned themselves alive protesting the Diem regime’s corruption and repression of Buddhists—as “barbecues” and crowed, “Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.”

[See all of LIFE.com’s coverage of the Vietnam War]

Madame Nhu, Vietnam, 1962
Larry Burrows—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Also known by the moniker “Dragon Lady” (in the West) and “Tiger Lady” (in Vietnam), Madame Nhu was a true enigma, as comfortable hosting parties at the presidential palace as she was firing pistols while visiting women in the paramilitary outfit that she herself organized (photo above).

“I don’t like these awful toys,” she reportedly said at the time, “but if it is necessary to use them for our country, I am ready to.”

As it turned out, she never got the chance. She was in California on a public relations tour, drumming up political and financial support for her brother-in-law’s dictatorship—and droppng rhetorical bombshells at pretty much every stop along the way—when her husband and Diem were assassinated.

Madame Nhu died just three years ago, in 2011, in Rome—36 years after the end of the war in Vietnam. (Read her obit in the New York Times.) This complicated, profoundly polarizing character was, in a way, an ideal representative of an era and a conflict that, five decades later, still spark soul-searching among those who lived through those turbulent times.

Hailing from Colombia, undergraduate Felipe De La Hoz studies journalism at NYU, where he reports and edits for the Washington Square News. See his photography here and follow him @FelipeDLH.

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