ROME -- Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, the outspoken beauty who served as South Vietnam's unofficial first lady early on in the Vietnam War and earned the nickname "dragon lady" for her harsh criticism of protesting Buddhist monks and communist sympathizers, has died at age 86, a Rome funeral home said yestterday.

She died on Easter Sunday in a Rome hospital. The Gualandri funeral home said she was registered as Tran Le Xuan, her original Vietnamese name, meaning "Beautiful Spring." Madame Nhu lived in the former presidential palace in South Vietnam's capital, Saigon, with her husband, the powerful head of the secret police, and his bachelor brother, President Ngo Dinh Diem, who served from 1955 to 1963. She took on the role of first lady as U.S.-backed South Vietnam fought northern communist forces before Washington broadened its military effort.

In the early 1960s, the trendsetting Madame Nhu was often photographed with her bouffant hairdo and glamorous clothes, including a tight version of the traditional silk tunic known as the ao dai, which showcased her slender body. She was equally well known for her fiery rhetoric, and was particularly outspoken against Buddhist monks who were setting themselves on fire to protest Diem's crackdown -- once saying she would "clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others." Her Buddhist father, Tran Van Chuong, who was serving as the South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States, resigned in protest as did her mother, Nam-Tran Chuong, who was South Vietnam's permanent observer to the United Nations.

Madame Nhu later called her father "a coward." She was in the United States on a speaking tour on Nov. 1, 1963, when her husband, Ngo Dinh Nhu, was killed along with Diem in a U.S.-backed coup, ending his eight-year rule.

Madame Nhu went into exile in Italy and remained in Europe until her death, living a reclusive life in which she left her home only to attend Mass, according to family friend Thu Phu Truong of Seattle.

"When you hear the news one of your friends or relatives passes away, you are probably very sad. In this case, I am kind of joyful," Truong told The Associated Press. "When her husband was killed, she was away, and she lived by herself . . . for what? She is waiting for the day she can be reunited with her husband."

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