The death of Madame Nhu in Rome, at the age of 87, brings home one age-old lesson, and another we Baby Boomers increasingly appreciate: Fame is fleeting, and time passes with disconcerting swiftness.
When I mentioned Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu to one of our younger editors here, he had never heard of her--which, of course, is not especially surprising since she had been out of the news for nearly a half-century. But once upon a time, there was a five- or six-month period--I would identify somewhere between Spring 1963 and November 2 of that year--when Madame Nhu was arguably the most famous woman on the planet.
The daughter of an aristocratic Vietnamese family, she was married to the brother of the president of South Vietnam, the hapless Ngo Dinh Diem, and universally regarded as the power behind the throne. Her father Tran Van Chuong was ambassador in Washington. Her husband Ngo Dinh Nhu was his elder brother's chief political adviser, and Madame Nhu was official hostess for the unmarried President Diem. In addition to the influence she appeared to wield, and her fondness for palace intrigue, Madame Nhu was notorious for two things: her good looks, accentuated by the form-fitting Vietnamese ao-dai she habitually wore with a plunging neckline, and a sharp tongue. Her excoriations of plotting generals and feckless politicians were notorious among the American press corps in Saigon, and when Buddhist monks began publicly setting themselves on fire to protest the Roman Catholic Diem's policies, Madame Nhu referred dismissively to the spectacle as "barbecues."
By the time the Buddhist monks were committing ritual suicide, in 1963, it was an open secret that the Kennedy administration was unhappy with the Diem regime, and giving tacit support to dissident South Vietnamese officers. Madame Nhu, whose image glared that summer from the covers of innumerable magazines, was the face of the intransigently corrupt South Vietnamese government. President Diem seemed primarily interested in keeping himself in power, and protecting his family's innumerable prerogatives, rather than resisting the increasingly bold and successful Communist insurgency.
Indeed, by the time the army was ready to move against Diem, Madame Nhu was on a heavily-publicized tour of the United States where she raged against official hostility toward her brother-in-law, and deeply embarrassed political Washington. By this juncture her own father had resigned as ambassador in protest against the Diem government, and I can still remember Madame Nhu and her entourage laying siege to the embassy in Washington one evening in a vain attempt to confront him.
And just as quickly as Madame Nhu entered the national consciousness, she left it. The army moved against Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu in Saigon on November 2, 1963, murdered them both--and the new South Vietnamese junta declared Madame Nhu persona non grata. Widowed, stateless, and suddenly in personal jeopardy, Madame Nhu and her young children retreated to a very long, embittered exile in Paris and Rome.
Within a few months, and then well within the chronology of the Indochina war, Madame Nhu was yesterday's news. The camera may have loved her, but reporters were no longer interested. The generals who overthrew her relations were themselves overthrown a few months later, then there was coup after coup, and it took another year or two for the wobbly government in South Vietnam to achieve some measure of (American-sponsored) stability. The rest, as they say, is history.
Every dozen years or so, Madame Nhu would issue a statement, or grant some splenetic interview, blaming the United States for her personal travails and her homeland's misfortune, rekindling distant memories of South Vietnam before the Kennedy assassination, before a massive infusion of American combat troops, before Lyndon Johnson and General Westmoreland and the Tet Offensive and the 1975 fall of Saigon. And then, suddenly, she was no longer the stylish thirtysomething Dragon Lady on the cover of Newsweek, but Madame Nhu, 87, dead in Rome.