In A.D. 40 the legendary Trung sisters led a Vietnamese rebellion against the Chinese. They fought astride elephants and, upon victory, ruled as queens. Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, who died April 24 at 87, considered herself a modern-day Trung. During her stint as South Vietnam's unofficial First Lady in the early days of the Vietnam conflict (she was married to the brother of bachelor President Ngo Dinh Diem), Madame Nhu commissioned a statue of the sisters--cast, of course, in her likeness. When Diem was assassinated in a 1963 coup, Saigon celebrated, and her statue fell.
Though she fancied herself a hero, Madame Nhu played the villain well. Born to an aristocratic Hanoi family and raised Buddhist, she converted to Catholicism when she married. During her brother-in-law's rule, she earned a reputation for zealotry, crusading against adultery, abortion and dance halls. In the waning days of the regime, she greeted the news that a Buddhist monk set himself on fire with a quip about "barbecues." "Let them burn, and we shall all clap our hands," she said. Americans, caught in a fight they couldn't win, found her as alluring and repellent as the war. "To some she is an Asian Joan of Arc, to others an Oriental Lucrezia Borgia," wrote TIME in 1962. Her most enduring nickname, though, was Dragon Lady, a reference to a femme fatale from a popular U.S. comic. It's a sobriquet that, despite its antiquated orientalism, the ferocious Madame Nhu might have liked.