Matthew Polly's biography of the martial-arts expert, whose movies "Fist of Fury," "Way of the Dragon" and "Enter the Dragon" were international hits, is thorough, balanced and myth-busting.
Bruce Lee’s funeral service in Hong Kong attracted more than 15,000 mourners. Hundreds of police formed a human chain to hold back the crowds. As the hearse containing his body departed, “Bruce’s fans went wild with grief,” Matthew Polly writes in “Bruce Lee: A Life.” “Old men wept, young girls fainted, and many people were hospitalized for shock and minor injuries.”
At the time of his death in 1973, Lee was the most popular actor — arguably the most popular person — in Asia. He was 32 years old, handsome, charismatic and a martial-arts expert whose movies “Fist of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon” and “Enter the Dragon” were international hits. But in the U.S., “Enter the Dragon” hadn’t been released and Lee was best known as Kato on “The Green Hornet,” a TV series that was canceled after one season. His widow, Linda Lee, chose to have her husband buried in Seattle, her hometown and the place where she first saw Lee when he gave a lecture on Chinese philosophy at Garfield High School.
The decision to bury Lee in the U.S. outraged his Asian fans, but Linda Lee was adamant and Lee was interred in Lake View Cemetery after a small service that included Steve McQueen and James Coburn as pallbearers. “Bruce believed the individual represents the whole of mankind whether he lives in the Orient or elsewhere,” Linda Lee said at her husband’s funeral. “He believes man struggles to find the life outside himself, not realizing the life he seeks is within him.”
The contrast between Lee’s two funerals reflected his remarkable life. He was born in San Francisco in 1940, during the hour and year of the dragon, while his father was touring the U.S. with an opera company. Lee’s first movie appearance came when he was 2 months old, playing a newborn girl in a patriotic war movie (“his first and last cross-dressing performance,” Polly notes). A month later, Lee went to Hong Kong with his parents and stayed for 18 years, growing up as the rebellious son of a privileged family, a hyperactive kid who picked fights, loved attention, and was a talented actor and dancer.
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Lee landed in Seattle because he’d been expelled from school in Hong Kong and his parents thought he needed some discipline. He’d discovered kung fu at 15 and was attracted to it first as a way of becoming a better fighter and then as a philosophy of life that he adapted to his own personality and needs, a process that accelerated in Seattle. During his five years in Seattle (1959-64), Lee worked as a dishwasher and lived above the Chinese restaurant of a family friend, graduated from Edison Technical High School and attended the University of Washington, met and married his wife, and opened his first martial-arts school. (Lee also briefly worked stuffing ads in The Seattle Times.) He returned for a few months in 1965 with his wife and infant son Brandon to live with his mother-in-law before he was cast in “The Green Hornet.”
The rest is history — a muddled history that Polly ably sifts through. There are dozens of books on Lee in English and Chinese, many of them hagiographies by family members. “Bruce Lee: A Life” is thorough, balanced and myth-busting, particularly on the murky circumstances of Lee’s death. His legacy, Polly writes, is that he “single-handedly introduced more people to Asian culture than any other person in history. Because of Bruce, millions of Westerners took up the martial arts.”
“Bruce Lee: A Life” by Matthew Polly; Simon & Schuster, 640 pp; $35