Madame Nhu, South Vietnam's unofficial "first lady" during the administration of Ngo Dinh Diem, passed into eternal life on Easter Sunday at age 87 -- just six days before the 36th anniversary of the fall of Saigon on April 30.
Tran LeXuan was born in the line of Vietnamese royalty, descended from the ninth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. Her life would prove to be tragic in many respects. Raised a Buddhist, she converted to Christianity upon her marriage and remained a devout Catholic for the rest of her life. Strikingly beautiful, glamorous and intelligent, she had a tempestuous personality and blunt manner of expression. She became bitterly estranged from her parents for political reasons during the Diem years. Her husband was murdered along with President Diem by American-backed assassins in 1963. After this stinging betrayal, she spent her remaining years in exile in Italy and France, living in seclusion. Her oldest daughter died in an automobile accident in 1967. In 1986 her deranged brother was charged with murdering her elderly parents, with whom she had partially reconciled.
Madame Nhu was permitted to influence public policy in the Diem administration. According to this interesting biography, her reforms were not always well received:
She played a leading role in the moral reform President Diem instituted in South Vietnam, closing down brothels, opium dens and gambling houses. She was at the front of imposing what was known as the "campaign for public morality" on South Vietnam, which included the abolition of divorce, contraceptives and abortion. Nightclubs and ball rooms were also often targets. Even beauty pageants were halted as Madame Nhu believed they simply contributed to the objectification of women. This campaign of decency, while admirable, was met with a great deal of hostility by those who did not share Madame Nhu's view of ethics.
Here's some rare video footage of Madame Nhu speaking to students at Fordham University during the war: "Catholicism, Family, Fordham".
More photos and video below the break.