Empress Nam Phương (14 December 1914 – 16 September 1963), born Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan, baptised Marie-Thérèse later Imperial Princess Nam Phương, was the first and primary wife of Bảo Đại, the last emperor of Vietnam, from 1934 until her death. She was also the second and last empress consort (hoàng hậu) of the Nguyễn Dynasty.
Marie-Thérèse Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was born in Gò Công, a Mekong Delta town in what was then the French colony of Cochinchina, one of the three areas (the others being the protectorates of Annam and Tonkin) that composed the Union of French Indochina.
Her father, Pierre Nguyễn Hữu-Hào, described as a wealthy merchant, had been born into a poor Roman Catholic family in Gò Công. Through an introduction from the Archbishop of Saigon, he became secretary to the billionaire Lê Phát Đạt, Duke of Long-My, and eventually married his employer's daughter, Marie Lê Thị Binh, and inherited his title.
A naturalized French citizen, Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan, who was known as Mariette, studied at the Couvent des Oiseaux, an aristocratic Catholic school located in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, where she was sent at the age of 12.
She was a distant cousin of her future husband, the emperor.
On 9 March 1934, the public announcement of the engagement of Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan and Bảo Đại, King of Annam, was released. (In the 19th century, the occupying French forces had diminished the rank of the country's emperor to king, a situation that was not reversed until 1945.) In it, Bảo Đại stated, "The future Queen, reared like us in France, combines in her person the graces of the West and the charms of the East. We who have had the occasion to meet her believe that she is worthy to be our companion and our equal. We are certain by her conduct and example that she fully merits the title of First Woman of the Empire." After a formal betrothal ceremony in the imperial summer palace in Da Lat, the king married Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan on 20 March 1934, in Huế. The ceremony was Buddhist, though the ruler's Catholic fiancée caused some controversy; the country's population was not entirely in favor of the bride's religious affiliation. Others suspected that the marriage "smelled high of French chicanery." The New York Times reported that "discontent was general" in the country, given that Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan had declined to renounce Catholicism and was appealing to Pope Pius XI for a dispensation. Another article noted that there was much discussion over a report that the pope might allow the bride to "remain a Catholic if she gave the Church her girl children." Further complicating the wedding plans was the apparent disapproval of the young monarch's mother, Doan Huy, and his late father's secondary wives, all of whom had other bridal candidates that Bảo Đại apparently did not consider.
At the state ceremony that marked the end of the four-day wedding festivities, Nguyễn Hữu Thị Lan was given the title 'Imperial Princess' and the name Nam Phương, which can be roughly translated as 'Fragrance of the South', in acknowledgment of her place of birth.
Time on 2 April 1934 closely followed the traditional royal nuptials:
"Little Mariette Nguyen Huu Hao was beautifully married. It took four days. On her way up Annam's great mandarin road along the coast she stopped off to climb a mountain and drink of the "frozen spring." Outside Huê, a cavalcade of palace mandarins on short native Phu-Yen horses met her in the Valley of Clouds and escorted her through the three walls of the Red City into the Palace of Passengers. Next day, dressed in a great brocaded Annamite gown, she stepped into an automobile and was driven to the Emperor's Palace, followed by the Imperial princesses and the blue-turbaned wives of the mandarins. Two scrolls, on which were written a prayer to Bảo Đại's ancestors and the name and age (18) of Nguyen Huu Hao, were burnt on the altars. Finally the two young people were brought face to face and married. It took three more days of Buddhist rites behind the locked gates of the Red City to complete the ceremony. On the fourth day a battalion of mandarins led in musicians and the bearers of the royal insignia. The new Queen, her hair elaborately wound about a tiara encrusted with precious stones, received the Imperial seal and the golden book. Finally she arose and bowed her forehead to the floor three times, in the traditional Chinese kowtow (pronounced ker-toe) of thanks."
At the time of her marriage, a song was written in her honor: "In the firmament of the Son of Heaven a brilliant new star has risen!/Supple as the neck of the swan is the charm of her graceful form./Her black and sparkling eyes, in hours of ease, envelop and thrill that happy mortal allowed to see./O, Nguyễn Hữu-Hào! Beautiful are all thy ways."
The emperor and empress had five children, most of whom were educated at the French boarding school their mother had attended, Convent des Oiseaux:
On 18 June 1945, Nam Phương was raised in rank from Her Majesty to Her Imperial Majesty. She also was granted the title of empress, her husband having assumed the title of emperor after proclaiming the country's independence from France, as he had been urged to do as a member of Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. At this time, Tonkin, Cochinchina, and Annam, which came under the control of Imperial Japan after World War II, were reunited to become the Empire of Vietnam, a puppet state. However, the new emperor was soon convinced to abdicate the throne by the revolutionary leader Hồ Chí Minh, head of the Việt Minh. The former emperor returned to Vietnam in 1949 at the invitation of the civilian government and was named head of state, but he went into exile again in 1954.
Nam Phương's first official visit to Europe, in the summer of 1939, launched a craze for what one reporter described as "trousers and embroidered tunics for evenings; pagoda silhouettes, [and] revers or sleeve forms." To the surprise of fashion observers, when she met with Pope Pius XII during that trip, "the visitor from Indochina did not wear the traditional black, long-sleeved gown and veil. Instead, she appeared in a gold, dragon-embroidered tunic, red scarf, and gold hat. She wore silver trousers."
In 1947, after the Communist takeover of the country, the empress and her children moved to Château Thorens, outside of Cannes, France, which had been in the family since its purchase by her maternal grandfather in the early 20th century. She separated from her husband in 1955. Two years later, when the Vietnamese government announced its confiscation of the imperial family's personal property, the bill specifically excluded any real estate owned by the empress prior to 1949. These properties included her father's villa at Da Lat, which is now Lam Dong Museum.
Empress Nam Phương died on 16 September 1963 from a heart attack, at Domaine de La Perche, her home near the small rural village of Chabrignac, Corrèze, France. She was buried in the local cemetery.
|First Lady of South Vietnam||Succeeded by
Madame Ngô Đình Nhu
Empress Thừa Thiên
|Empress of Nguyễn Dynasty||Succeeded by