Al Hooper

Truth in fiction

Bruce Lee’s legend:
How much is true?

In Al Hooper’s acclaimed action/mystery Martial Law in Yakima, B.J. Reynolds returns to his hometown to investigate the death of his revered sifu, mysteriously slain a month earlier. B.J.’s visit to his sifu’s grave evokes memories of an earlier visit to another gravesite in Seattle’s Lakeview Memorial Cemetery, where martial arts legend Bruce Lee is buried. 

Following is an excerpt from the novel:


One spring day not so long ago, with a soft breeze drifting over the hillside at Lake View Memorial Cemetery in Seattle, B.J. had stood beside Bruce Lee's grave and marveled at the power and durability of cults. The gravesite had the hushed air of a shrine.

The red granite headstone was awash in flowers placed there by earnest admirers. Several visitors had left handwritten notes addressed to Bruce Lee personally.

Others had dropped coins on the grave, perhaps imagining the late martial artist might run short of pocket change in the afterlife.

B.J. felt a chill of unreality. There appeared to be no limit to the public appetite for celebrity heroes. In the hands of the marketing mavens, "properties" like Elvis Presley and James Dean and Bruce Lee were more valuable dead than alive.

B.J. had known Bruce Lee only slightly. He found him unassuming in private and, in the manner of many show business people, somewhat more boisterous with the cameras running.

Nothing in Bruce's early years in America suggested that he was destined to become a martial arts icon. He died on July 20, 1973. B.J. remembered the date well. He had just returned from a risky field action near Da Nang when he learned that Bruce Lee had succumbed to a brain aneurysm in the relative security of a Hong Kong apartment.

The actor had just finished filming Enter The Dragon, the project that was to establish him in the pantheon of bankable action stars. The film, then in post-production, looked good. His success and fame were assured.

Then, incredibly, at age thirty-two, he was dead.

Throughout the 1970s, Bruce Lee's reputation as both actor and martial artist did a slow dissolve. It was the pre-video and pre-cable era, a time when feature films made their debut in theaters, enjoyed a shelf life of anywhere from three days to three months, and disappeared from view. More or less permanently.

But with the arrival of the video cassette, everything changed. Old movies were exhumed from musty cans and dusted off for new audiences. And when cable television exploded on the scene, with its insatiable need for product, Bruce Lee films found a place in the hearts of a generation too young to remember him the first time around.

From this came the myth-building about Bruce's life.

Followed by the conspiracy-peddling about his death. 

One theory held that Bruce Lee had been murdered by film rivals in Hong Kong, where he had grown up before emigrating to Seattle. If you preferred a more romantic version, he had been poisoned by the jealous boyfriend of a beautiful actress who appeared with him in Enter The Dragon.

But B.J.'s personal favorite was a report that denied the late actor's demise entirely. Bruce Lee had faked his death and was hiding out from the Chinese Mafia -- an intriguing contradiction in terms -- until he considered it safe to resurface.

When would that be?

Don't ask. 

As B.J. surveyed the grave-dotted hillside overlooking Lake Washington, he realized this was an inspired choice for Bruce Lee's final resting place. Beyond the lake lay the rolling campus of the University of Washington, where Bruce had met Linda, his wife-to-be. Three miles from this very spot, in the covered parking lot of a Capital Hill hospital, he had taught his first students in America: Jesse Glover, Taky Kimura, Jim DeMile, Ed Hart, Pat Hooks.

Then came Hollywood and a role as Kato in The Green Hornet television series. Followed by unemployment and rejection when the series died. And a return to Hong Kong where, in the space of two years, he made a bevy of chop-socky films that established him as an international cult favorite.

And yet Bruce always insisted he was a martial artist by nature and an actor by trade. One he did for love, the other to make a living.

Certainly he was a martial arts innovator. And a master debunker. He was the first prominent practitioner to spurn tradition and deride "the classical mess." Which, in effect, was the basic framework for all the arts.

Youthful rebellion? In part, yes. Showmanship? That, too.

But it was also his way of calling on the ranking masters to allow for a second opinion about their methods and beliefs. That part of his message got lost in transit.
His detractors saw him as an ingrate; he was demeaning the very concepts that accounted for his success.

Another faction knee-jerked in the opposite direction. Fourth-rate instructors took to denouncing the classical styles in favor of teaching their own "practical" system. Meaning, no system at all. 

These self-inflated Bruce Lee wannabes reminded B.J. of an observation by the author Gertrude Stein: "It is so flattering to be imitated by someone who doesn't understand."

Bruce Lee understood his art. He even understood the value of "the classical mess." Every innovation he came up with was informed by his background in the classical arts. Every technique he worked so hard to perfect went beyond the technique itself to the enduring spirit of the arts.

"The very struggle has defined me," he once said. 

At his funeral, amid a sea of bowed heads surrounding his casket, Linda Lee gave a poignant eulogy for her late husband. "He believed that man struggles to find a life outside himself," she said, "not realizing that the life he seeks is within him."

On his gravestone, inscribed in the molded likeness of an open book, are the words: "Your inspiration continues to guide us toward our personal liberation."  
An admirable sentiment.

But not the whole story. 

As if tapped by a benign fate, Bruce Lee had been the focal point of a martial arts movement that swept the Western World after the Second World War, spreading out from China, Korea, Okinawa and Japan.

Of course Chinese kung-fu wasn't new to America; it was practiced secretly from the time the railroads imported thousands of indentured coolies for the hazardous work of stretching steel across the nation's rivers and mountains and canyons. 

What brought Bruce Lee's kung-fu to the forefront was his willingness to teach the art to non-Chinese -- white, black, brown or any combination thereof. For this he was ostracized by his own people.

A temporary condition, as it turned out.

All was forgiven when he returned to Hong Kong to make the handful of films that captivated his Chinese audiences and eventually became his legacy. While these films often seemed ludicrous to Western eyes, they acquired the luster of revealed truth in the decades following his death.

By then his legend was worldwide.

Reality lagged somewhere behind.

The truth was that Bruce Lee had been a bright young guy whose early stage training by his actor father enabled him to dramatize and popularize his martial arts philosophy. He was right about some things, wrong about others. He was an exceptional stylist himself, but of far greater importance was his belief that the arts should be an avenue to self-fulfillment for anyone who practiced them.

Robert Clouse, who directed him in Enter The Dragon, remembers a prophetic observation that Bruce made on the set in Hong Kong.

  "When I die," Bruce told the director, "people will do things I won't like. They'll probably build monuments, have impressive creeds, hang pictures of me in the halls and bow to me."
And leave letters on your grave, B.J. thought.

He leaned closer in order to read one of them.

Master Lee: Your light burns forever. I will tell you this myself when I see you in the beyond. I am in the martial arts because you taught me, even though I wasn't born when you died. -- Thomas Higgins, Sheffield, England.

B.J. pondered this leap of faith before moving to the next note, scrawled on the back of an envelope.

To The Great Bruce Lee: I dedicate my life to finding those who killed you. There is only one Bruce Lee. I am only an orange belt in Shotokan karate now. When I am a black belt I will avenge your death. -- Gerald Dozier, Santa Barbara, California.

It was the third note, staked to the manicured turf beside the grave, that gave B.J. the most trouble.

Honored Master Lee: Your secret is safe with all who believe in you. Of course you did not die! On the day you decide to show yourself to the world again, everyone will know that Bruce Lee lives. An impostor lies in this grave! -- Ligget Klingel, East Lansing, Michigan.

B.J. straightened. A delegation of young people approached from the direction of the cemetery's wrought-iron gates. A class of martial arts students accompanied by their instructor, no doubt following the sexton's directions to Lake View Cemetery's most eminent resident: Stay left through the gates and follow the road to the top of the hill . . .
B.J. was still thinking about that third note. An impostor lies in this grave! The ultimate conspiracy. Did the conspirators ask for a volunteer to play the corpse or just draw straws? 
He looked down at the grave and spoke quietly.

"I know you're there, Bruce Lee."

And walked back to his car.

*  *  *

The next time B.J. visited Lake View Memorial Cemetery there was a second family grave near the spreading pine on the hillside.

In a stunning tragedy, Bruce's son Brandon Lee had been killed on a Hollywood film set. A handgun loaded with blanks proved to contain a lethal charge. Brandon, a young boy when his father died, had now lost his own life under even more bizarre circumstances exactly twenty years later.

It happened on April 1, 1993. The rising young actor was twenty-eight years old. From all reports, he possessed all of Bruce's charm but none of the fierce demons that drove his father.

In one of his last interviews, Brandon Lee talked of Bruce Lee's legacy.

"He impressed me that there isn't an endless amount of time," Brandon said. "I've always remembered his words. And I try, consciously, not to waste any time."

Linda Lee brought Brandon's body back to Seattle to be buried beside his father. She ordered matching headstones for her late husband and her only son. Once again in her comparatively young life, Linda Lee was called upon to be heroic. And she was.

In Western society, B.J. reflected as he stood beside the two gravesites, we're told that "life is for the living." Most Eastern philosophies reject this shallow concept; they see life as a continuum, in which past generations reach out to guide and sustain succeeding generations.

Life, in this view, is for the ages.

And so too are Bruce and Brandon Lee.

*  *  *

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