The endless stories, anecdotes and images of Empress Nam Phương have always been the immortal topic in the hearts of many Vietnamese people for many years. People praised her as a talented, beautiful, intelligent female figure whose life ended without a happy ending. So, who was Empress Nam Phương?
The full name of Empress Nam Phương is Jeanne Mariette Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan. Born from a renowned family in the Gò Công province, which is now the Tiền Giang province, she was the granddaughter of a great wealthy man Lê Phát Đạt (also known as Huyện Sỹ) – one of the four richest people in Vietnam back then. She is the wife of Emperor Bảo Đại and the last Empress of Vietnam.
The family of lady Jeanne Mariette Thérése Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan, with their glorious background, sent her to study in Saigon until she was 12 years old, then sent her to the famed French boarding school, Convent des Oiseaux. At that time, people classified her as a highly educated lady as she passed the full Baccalaureate, equivalent to the current high school diploma.
After returning to the homeland, her uncle – Lê Phát An, the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Huyện Sỹ, took her to a party hosted by French officials at La Palace Hotel to have an audience with Emperor Bảo Đại. The marriage between her and Emperor Bảo Đại came shortly thereafter. At the time of her marriage, the Emperor was 21, and she had just turned 20. However, the marriage encountered countless obstructions of many court officials and the Huế court for her Catholic religion as well as the requirements of Emperor Bảo Đại, which were considered unprecedented. One of those requirements was to be ordained Empress on the wedding day, which was an exception. Almost all the royal concubines were only made Empress only after passing away, which was an exception for Empress Thừa Thiên Cao, the primary wife of Emperor Gia Long and Empress Lệ Thiên Anh, the primary wife of Emperor Tự Đức.
Her marriage was solemnly celebrated on March 20, 1934, in the imperial city of Huế. And by the very next day, in Thái Hòa Palace, she was ordained Empress by Emperor Bảo Đại, and took the title of Nam Phương, meaning “Fragrance of the South.” Regarding this title, the Emperor himself bestowed it upon her as he loved the combination of the typical elegant beauty of the Southern people with the luxurious attributes of Western women. Moreover, the Emperor’s love was so deep that he issued a special proclamation allowing the Empress to use the yellow costumes, which was a colour reserved only for the Emperor.
Empress Nam Phương and Emperor Bảo Đại had five children, two princes, and three princesses. In 1945, Emperor Bảo Đại abdicated and moved to Hanoi to be an advisor afterward. Empress Nam Phương continued to stay in the Imperial City of Hue, raising the Princes and Princesses. In Hanoi, former Emperor Bảo Đại betrayed her after having the affairs with Phi Ánh and Mộng Điệp, and had even sent a letter to Empress Nam Phương, asking the Royal Palace to send him an allowance for his lovers. Despite knowing everything, the Empress kept it a secret. When Mr. Phạm Khắc Hòe, a Minister of the former Emperor, advised her to go to Hanoi for a family reunion, she refused, saying that she could follow the former Emperor’s wishes for not suddenly bother his happiness and make his life miserable and restrained.
While in exile in Hong Kong, former Emperor Bảo Đại had an extramarital relationship with female dancer Lý Lệ Hà. By the time hearing about it, the Empress wrote a letter of only 66 words to Ms. Lý with the content:
“Dear my Lý Lệ Hà. I am thousands of miles away from the former Emperor, but I know that you are wholeheartedly caring for the former Emperor in Hong Kong. I pray that history will not let go of the former Emperor so that we could meet one day. The Empress Dowager Từ Cung and I take our lives to be grateful to you. Nam Phương!”
With only 66 words containing profound meanings, she made the dancer realize her position and showed the pride and luxurious qualities of a Western-style educated woman, who choosing silence and refusing any tricks to get the former Emperor back from another woman.
In 1947, Empress Nam Phương and her children went to France. In the later stage of her life, the Empress wandered lonely around the castle. Being told by the people of Chabrignac village, she was always holding an unexplainable sadness despite her wealth. In September 1963, the Empress quickly caught a cold and a sore throat because of the sudden changes in temperature. The doctor visited and diagnosed her with a sore throat, but she had difficulty breathing. Because of the distant geography, the doctors were unable to cure it on time. The Empress passed away at 5 p.m. without any relatives beside her. The funeral of the Empress was organized simply by a Catholic ceremony with the participation of her sons, and daughters, and two French sheriffs of the local government. Her tomb was in a Catholic cemetery Chabrignac, staying there in the grief of many generations of Vietnamese people.
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