Although it’s been several years since I let this image wander through my mind, my first memories of Bruce Lee date back to the seventies. While attending finishing school in Dallas, Texas, I entered and won the Miss Texas Universe pageant. My first assignment was to present roses and a trophy to the Karate Champion of the World. Joe Lewis was fighting Chuck Norris. That’s all I knew. As a kid, I was at ringside every Friday night with my father watching boxing and wrestling, but I knew nothing of martial arts.
Adrenaline was pumping as the fight escalated to a frenzy. The whole occurrence astonished me. I became deeply involved in the offensive as well as defensive punches and kicks, especially the hooking roundhouse kick, the offset rhythm, the variation of technique, and the foot-work, etc.; but, in short order Chuck Norris was on the mat, and I was presenting the already crowned Heavyweight Karate Champion of the World, Joe Lewis, with yet another title.
After that night, a budding relationship developed and in a matter of months Joe introduced me to Los Angeles, California… and to Bruce Lee.
Meeting Bruce Lee was a revelation in itself. There was an uncanny truth about his presence as though he could hear what I was thinking. Not uncomfortably so, just eerie. Little did I know this lithe, dark-haired gentleman would be an inspiration and motivation for years to come. Many indelible images still remain: his long slender fingers which I could feel when we shook hands (I had no idea those graceful hands were lethal weapons); his tremendous confidence as though he was absolute about what he knew, and that was a lot; his endless curiosity and network of ideas; his unmenacing look when calm, and killer when angered; his cat-like walk; his enthusiastic talk; his overwhelming generosity; his intense energy; and his unorthodox diet designed for power and strength.
In fact, he commented about drinking blood from time to time. Of course, I didn’t think that strange because my grandfather, a rancher, drank the blood of his sheep after the slaughter. He said it tasted like warm milk. It does, I tried it!
Later, on Bruce’s suggestion, I drank a high-protein drink which included crushed egg shells among other ingredients, but I had a stomach ache for days. Once, jogging up Mulholland Drive at the intersection of Roscomare, I looked up and incredulously saw Mr Lee running up the steep hill at a fast clip… backward! Of course, I tried that too and pulled a hamstring.
Our gracious host led us through parts of his home. It was orderly, spiritual, filled with books, exercise equipment and comfortably functional. while walking through the kitchen and into the backyard, Bruce took delight in Joe’s account of the fight with Chuck Norris. As Joe demonstrated certain movements and positions, Bruce would add or suggest other variations to find the specifics of a particularity. It was obvious that they shared a mutual admiration.
After laughing and joking around for a while, they peeled off their shirts and began to spar. Like in a dream, I was observing two gladiators, two gods of the Roman era, only this was a backyard in 20th century California with her sun burning down on these magnificent males – one, an all-American blond sculpted to perfection, the other a sleek satin-skinned panther from the Far East with a chiseled physique and startling quickness that defied description.
Forget blinking! Even with an intense gaze, I never saw the punch. Bruce was more than amazing. He was dazzling and with a sense of fun. Sweat began to glisten. Hair stuck to his forehead. Just to witness his agility, grace, focus and superb abilities was my good fortune. It was beyond pleasure – it was sheer ecstasy.
A few hours later, while sitting in his viewing room watching old black and white films of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson, Bruce pointed out their intricate footwork and then quickly imitated the famous shuffle to perfection.
Although he also watched Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” and borrowed from the great classic boxing skills of Jack Johnson, I think he learned the most from Ali. But he identified more with Sugar Ray because they had much in common – a similar physique, size and weight. Besides, Ali learned his stuff from Sugar Ray. Genius learns from genius!
I left his home with the feeling that this hypersensitive man was, indeed, very practical. He knew exactly what he wanted and found the straightest line to that end. In his elegant and soft-spoken manner and with more determination than anyone I have ever met, he could impose his iron will upon people without their ever knowing it. Do you remember that wonderful boat scene on the journey to Hong Kong in “Enter the Dragon” when the masterful Lee outwitted an omitted the Australian bloke who insisted on a challenge? Humorously unassuming, Bruce led the big guy into a marooned boat without him even realizing it. Well, that was his style in life, too.
Bruce learned from everyone; he taught everyone. He was a caring teacher in all aspects of his life whether it was martial arts, filmmaking, or a myriad of other interests. He found joy in sharing knowledge. Being an eternal teacher and an eternal student, he was so many things – pioneer, discoverer, inventor, artist, athlete. Much like an alchemist, he would swallow something and immediately something else would develop – all processed, trimmed and functional. He was born with love of his art and perfectionism in his soul. I can’t explain genius, but Bruce Lee was a genius.
Find the Real Art
A visionary, he redefined his sport with a balletic sophistication and infused martial arts with the possibilities of a choreographed art. Thus, he became a milestone in sports by changing is craft into a real art. His tools were a combination of superior athleticism and seasoned balance, solid technique, classical line and sensitivity. With these assets, he made all forms of movement seem effortless. This, of course, is true of great athletes and great artists. And his was a beautiful blend of what martial art is all about – art and sport.
Bruce Lee has been unparalleled in his philosophical and successful approach to the instruction of his style, Jeet Kune Do, which is a rare combination of all martial arts as distilled through his focused intellect. He also gave a fresh interpretation of the ancient precepts that man is at his best when he is of both sound mind and sound body.
This powerful force was to the world of martial arts what Rudolph Nureyev was to the world of ballet – an artist to some, an athlete to others. Not only did he create a new genre in action films, but he altered the course of martial arts by adding an elegance still evident in all his imitators: Van Damme, Norris, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal, and many more.
Commercial opportunity was not part of his agenda. Love was! He did not fear what judges and critics would say. He always pushed the parameters, always conjured up visions of purity, balance, line, grace and beauty.
As he developed, he was willing to exhaust all the abilities he had. His professional projects included efforts in acting, writing, directing, producing, drawing, music, and choreography – always bringing innovation and freshness. Despite his individual excellence, he made time to encourage his partners, co-workers and students to feel talented and special.
Drive for the Top
His collaborators underscored his versatility. He would often hear, “You’re not from here! You’re not white!” And although he wanted to stay in his beloved America, he flew to Hong Kong where his drive to reach the top as an actor and performer was finally realized in a series of films.
Yes, he had a temper, yes he had his share of foibles and yes he could be a real (tough guy), but when something really counted, he was true blue. Although he was strong-minded and tough, he was also gentle and sensitive like his own hero, James Dean. Especially when watching the “Chinese Connection,” I am reminded of the multi-talented man.
Bruce had the panache of a star even in his early childhood films, and in Asia he was considered to be a great actor. Possibly in time, he would have mastered and redefined an American style of acting and filmmaking. About that we will never know.
By refusing to give into the American obsession of stereotyping, by relentlessly pursuing his own way, and by simply trying, he proved that he could change it all. And because he let nothing stand in his way, his limits were never defined.
For all that has been written good or bad, the world will never penetrate his mystery. And perhaps it’s best that way. The “Little Dragon” will remain that beautiful, glace-skinned creature that leaped off the screen for the world to appreciate endlessly and see flashes of his many characters – always the innocent wanderer in a strange land who came in peace and love, but wound up defending the underdog. Frozen in time is the image of an electrifying 32-year-old man at his peak, and his sense of style and ancient culture will be forever engrained in our world fabric.
Even though my encounter with this man was long ago and very brief, I still call upon him for motivation and inspiration. I can only image a great void is omnipresent in those who knew him personally. As for those who never knew him, he left his star across our sky, summoning a smile on our lips and amazement in our hearts. He sowed some worthy seeds that flower universally. I think even God must have cried when Bruce Lee died!
Brenda Venus is a world-renowned author.