Mostly living in obscurity ever since, she had once been among the world’s most visible women. She was featured on the cover of Time and Life magazines and became the glamorous public face of the South Vietnamese regime in media interviews and international speaking tours.
Born Tran Le Xuan, which means “beautiful spring,” she had grown up amid privilege and had family connections to Vietnamese aristocracy. She asserted political power through her marriage to Ngo Dinh Nhu, the chief of the secret police and adviser to the autocratic regime controlled by his brother, Ngo Dinh Diem.
Because Diem was a lifelong bachelor, Mme. Nhu took the title of first lady, said William Prochnau, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent in Vietnam who wrote the 1995 book “Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles.”
“It was almost as if she was married to Diem instead of his brother Nhu,” Prochnau said in an interview. “He listened to her more than anybody in Vietnam.”
In his book, Prochnau wrote that Mme. Nhu was a “starkly beautiful woman,” equipped with “scalpel-like scarlet fingernails,” who resembled the cartoon femme fatale “Dragon Lady” in the popular comic strip “Terry and the Pirates.”
“Everybody called her that, even in the U.S. Embassy in confidential reports,” Prochnau said in the interview. “It wasn’t just the press. She fit the part — in looks, activities and actions.”
Diminutive and wasp-waisted, she was often photographed in captivating poses and attire, including a form-fitting, low-cut variation of the traditional Vietnamese silk tunic known as the ao dai.
Mme. Nhu — through her sex appeal, fist-pounding persistence and sporadic charm offensives — came to possess tremendous influence on the affairs of state. Army generals took orders from her. The president did too.
When Mme. Nhu stepped into the room, photographers took notice and reporters scrambled for notebooks. In her public remarks, she could be scathing and callous. She once quipped that she would bring mustard to the “barbeque” when a Buddhist monk set himself on fire to protest Diem’s tyranny.
Mme. Nhu’s ferocious personality became legend shortly after Diem became president of the newly independent South Vietnam in 1954.
At the time, the army was still controlled by generals who were loyal to the former French colonial rulers and who regularly threatened to take power in a coup.
Time magazine reported in 1963 that one Army general, Nguyen Van Hinh, joked at cocktail parties that if he led a coup, he would exile every member of Diem’s family except Mme. Nhu. He said she would be his concubine.