Finding the Dragon Lady Summary and Reviews

Finding the Dragon Lady

The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu

by Monique Brinson Demery

Finding the Dragon Lady by Monique Brinson Demery X
Finding the Dragon Lady by Monique Brinson Demery
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Book Summary

In November 1963, the president of South Vietnam and his brother were brutally executed in a coup that was sanctioned and supported by the American government. President Kennedy later explained to his close friend Paul "Red" Fay that the reason the United States made the fateful decision to get rid of the Ngos was in no small part because of South Vietnam's first lady, Madame Nhu. "That goddamn bitch," Fay remembers President Kennedy saying, "She's responsible ... that bitch stuck her nose in and boiled up the whole situation down there."

The coup marked the collapse of the Diem government and became the US entry point for a decade-long conflict in Vietnam. Kennedy's death and the atrocities of the ensuing war eclipsed the memory of Madame Nhu - with her daunting mixture of fierceness and beauty. But at the time, to David Halberstam, she was "the beautiful but diabolic sex dictatress," and Malcolm Browne called her "the most dangerous enemy a man can have."

By 1987, the once-glamorous celebrity had retreated into exile and seclusion, and remained there until young American Monique Demery tracked her down in Paris thirty years later. Finding the Dragon Lady is Demery's story of her improbable relationship with Madame Nhu, and, having ultimately been entrusted with Madame Nhu's unpublished memoirs and her diary from the years leading up to the coup, the first full history of the Dragon Lady herself, a woman who was feared and fantasized over in her time, and who singlehandedly frustrated the government of one of the world's superpowers.

Paperback reprint. Published in hardcover Sept 2013.

You can see the full discussion here. This discussion will contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about Finding the Dragon Lady:

Are there parallels between people's feelings about communism then and terrorism today?
I agree with Kim - if it were 1960 once again, indeed people would compare the two. We are all afraid of the unknown and perhaps that answers the question the best. The better informed we are, the better we are able to confront the enemy. - caroln

Ask the Author
There was stuff in the US National Archives about her failed attempts to get a visa to the US in the mid 1960s, and there were copies of her annual Women's Day speeches that she continued to write and copy various congress members on, but publicly ... - davinamw

Did you develop any sympathy for Madame Nhu at all? Which of her actions were justifiable, which were heinous?
As human beings, we probably should feel sympathy for anyone whose parents are murdered. I think that Ms. Demerey's book is an important addition to the history of the United States. Our government has backed many coups only to turn around and find... - rebeccar

Do you think Madame Nhu was as powerful as she claims? If she’d been present during the coup, do you think the outcome would have been different?
I agree with Marianne's post that she confused getting attention with having power, as so many people do today. This book was fascinating to me because I lived thought that time in history and know so little about it. The book was a page turner and I... - tyrad

Do you think Madame Nhu would have been as reviled had she been a man?
I like what Marrianes said, what if the question should be would we even know of her if she were a man? How we now feel about her is tainted by gender and gendered expectations, but would she have been notable if she were another of the many men? - N*Starr

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Media Reviews

"Engagingly provocative…Smart and well-researched, Demery's biography offers insight into both an intriguing figure and the complicated historical moment with which she became eternally identified. A welcome addition to the literature on Vietnam." - Kirkus

"The book restores Madame Nhu to her proper place in history, as a ruthless and brilliant woman without whose manipulations the war in Vietnam might have turned out very differently… this frequently surprising book brings its subject back from exile." - Booklist

"Illuminating… shed[s] light on one of the country's most controversial figures." - Publishers Weekly

"A fascinating portrait of this polarizing figure…In the end, Demery admits that she ultimately became Madame Nhu's 'friend.' an admission that makes the reader admire the biographer even more for being so clear-eyed about her subject's flaws." - Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal

"Demery succeeds in painting such a nuanced picture of this powerful woman that by the time we reach Madame Nhu's 1963 U.S. press tour, we can sympathize with her desire to defend her country." - San Francisco Chronicle

"Deeply hell of a story." - Daily Beast

"Even those familiar with the history of Vietnam will be astonished at the bizarre case of Madame Nhu. Monique Demery tracks down the original Vietnamese 'Dragon Lady' who confesses to weaknesses and heartbreak but refuses to take responsibility for her role in the war that ruined so many lives in her country and ours." - Elizabeth Becker, author of When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge

"Beautifully told, and exhaustively researched in French, Vietnamese, and American sources - including interviews with Madame Nhu - Demery's book is now the standard for understanding the cultural politics of South Vietnam's first family." - Robert K. Brigham, Shirley Ecker Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar College

"It was said of Lord Byron that he was "mad, bad and dangerous to know." Not a bad appellation or epitaph for Tran Le Xuan, the infamous Madam Nhu. Monique Brinson Demery has deftly captured the life and time of the woman who defied her own government, the communist forces of North Vietnam and the Americans." - Morley Safer, correspondent for 60 Minutes, CBS News

"Monique Demery's account of her search for one of the pivotal figures in the Vietnam War, the beautiful and dangerous Madame Nhu, is a riveting detective story and a fascinating portrait of a woman far more complicated than her media image as The Dragon Lady." - Philip Caputo, author of A Rumor of War and The Longest Road

This information about Finding the Dragon Lady was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Portrait of a woman at war!
This book is part mystery, part history, and part biography of a legendary Vietnamese woman who grew up close to power and exploited her position in the midst of upheaval and war. The story is told with riveting historic events in the U.S. and Vietnam, but the most fascinating is the life of Madame Nhu who fought both personal and political battles to survive. Her war never ended as it seemed even at the end of her long life she never gave in and found peace. This is a noteworthy book that adds to a deeper understanding of the culture and of the Vietnamese/American conflict.


Finding History! In Viet Nam?
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Ms. Demery has written a very good book not only about Madame Nhu but also about the Vietnam War and the history of Viet Nam. Anyone who likes reading history will like this book. The author has writing style that is not dense nor overly scholarly which many times puts off readers. Ms. Demery's research is very inclusive of families and historical facts of that period. It reads almost like a novel. When I finished this book I walked away with an excellent perspective of her topic and that time period in relationship to the United States.


Looking for more
I found the author's insertion of her life to be a good tool, but it also got clunky. I appreciate that the author placed herself in the narrative, so we knew what her biases were, but at times there was too much of her story. The book had trouble flowing and got bogged down in details that did not help build a good story. I was expecting more of a story narrative, but it never quite emerged.

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Author Information

Monique Brinson Demery Author Biography

Photo: Jessica Tampas Photography

Monique Brinson Demery took her first trip to Vietnam in 1997 as part of a study abroad program with Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She was the recipient of a US Department of Education grant to attend the Vietnamese Advanced Summer Institute in Hanoi, and in 2003, she received a Master's degree in East Asia Regional Studies from Harvard University.

Demery's initial interviews with Madame Nhu in 2005 were the first Nhu had given to any Westerner in nearly twenty years. Demery lives in Chicago.

Name Pronunciation
Monique Brinson Demery: Moe-NEEK BRIN-son DEM-ery

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