Ex-South Vietnam 'First Lady' dead: media
One of the grand figures of the Vietnam War, the influential sister-in-law of president Ngo Dinh Diem who led a US-backed regime in the country's south, has died in Italy, media reported.
Known as "Madame Nhu", Tran Le Xuan died on Sunday in a Rome hospital, according to the VNExpress news website, citing the Nguoi Viet Nam Chau magazine which specialises in coverage of overseas-based Vietnamese.
The New York Times confirmed the death by citing her sister, Lechi Oggeri.
Born in 1924, Madame Nhu married Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu in 1943 and effectively became the first lady of the pro-American South Vietnam regime as US involvement in the country deepened.
A "femme fatale" known for shocking declarations, she described self-immolations by Buddhist monks opposed to Diem as a "barbecue".
"Sexually suggestive in her decollete gowns, which shocked old-fashioned Vietnamese, she occupied a peculiar place as the only woman close to the misogynist Diem," journalist Stanley Karnow wrote in "Vietnam: A History".
"Her power, however, signalled a regime in decay."
Historians and experts attribute to Madame Nhu an enormous influence on the bachelor Diem, despite the low esteem in which she was held by the United States.
In 1963 she accused Washington of betrayal after a reduction in aid to the regime of Diem, who was assassinated that same year along with his brother during a US-backed coup plot.
Madame Nhu was in the United States at the time.
A Francophone from an aristocratic family, she had been briefly detained in 1946 by the Viet Minh independence fighters led by revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.
In 1954, under the Geneva Accords that followed France's colonial defeat by the Viet Minh, emperor Bao Dai was reinstalled in the country's south. Diem had been in the United States but Bao Dai recalled him to be his prime minister.
The following year, in a rigged referendum, Diem took power and founded the Republic of Vietnam which he ran with several of his brothers.
Madame Nhu had four children and spent the last years of her life in France and Italy.
The South Vietnamese regime was defeated by communist forces on April 30, 1975, bringing about the country's reunification.
Communist authorities have made no comment on Madame Nhu's death.
© 2011 AFP