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Bruce Lee’s Wife Used His Philosophies to Adapt to His Death and the Loss of Their Son

Samantha Franco
Photo Credit: Steve Durgin / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0
Photo Credit: Steve Durgin / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell, was with him from the beginning. Before he made it as a world-famous movie and martial arts star, Cadwell admired Lee for his passion and his craft. She supported him throughout his journey to find fame and suffered a painstaking tragedy when he passed away. However, her intimate understanding of her husband’s philosophies has helped her adapt to the changes in her life.

Life before Lee

Linda Emery (now Cadwell) was born on March 21, 1945, in Everett, Washington. She was born to parents of Irish, Swedish, and English descent, and she was raised in a middle-class Baptist home. As a young girl, she attended Garfield High School, where she participated in active clubs including cheerleading. It was while she was attending this school that she first saw Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee's future wife, Linda Lee Cadwell ,wearing a hat and fur-trimmed coat
Linda Lee Cadwell fell in love with Bruce Lee while she was a student of his. (Photo Credit: WATFORD / Mirrorpix / Mirrorpix / Getty Images)

Lee was very young during this time, which was well before he made it as a star in Hong Kong and Hollywood. His Jeet Kune Do craft was still in its infancy. This was a combination of Wing Chun and other martial arts as well as his own philosophical ideologies. Lee stopped in at Garfield High School to give a demonstration, which captivated the young Cadwell.

“He was dynamic,” she once said of Lee. “From the very first moment I met him, I thought, ‘This guy is something else.'” He seemed to have had a lasting effect on her as when she finally graduated from high school, she enrolled at the University of Washington where Lee was already attending, and quickly became one of his students. While she sought a degree in teaching, her interest in martial arts – and in Lee – only grew stronger.

Cadwell becomes Bruce Lee’s wife

Their student-teacher relationship did not take long to develop into a romantic one. In 1964, two important things would happen in Lee’s life: he competed in the Long Beach International Karate Championships, where he nailed the iconic “one inch punch” that he became well-known for, and he tied the knot with Cadwell. The two were officially wed on August 17, 1964.

Bruce Lee surrounded by karate students
Linda Lee Cadwell married Bruce Lee in 1964, the same year he performed the “one inch punch” at the Long Beach International Karate Championships. (Photo Credit: Fotos International / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

Due to fears about public understanding of interracial marriage, the Lees chose to have a small ceremony with only a select few guests in attendance. They also didn’t employ a photographer to capture this monumental event in their lives.

They married while Cadwell was still enrolled in college. Shortly after becoming Bruce Lee’s wife, she discovered she was pregnant with their first child. Cadwell then dropped out of school and they moved out to Seattle, where she stayed home to take care of the household after their son, Brandon, was born in 1965. Lee opened up his own martial arts school called Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu, better known as Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu. Here, he polished his martial arts style, recording it in a text called “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do.”

Lee’s teaching style soon became very popular, with stars such as Steve McQueen studying it. With all of this success, Lee and the rest of the family moved to Los Angeles in 1966, where he tried to break out into the acting world. Unfortunately, the entertainment business wasn’t willing to take on a Chinese actor as their leading man. If Hollywood wasn’t going to have him, Lee set his sights on becoming famous in the Eastern part of the world.

The whole family, including their daughter Shannon, who was born in 1969, packed up their belongings and headed to Hong Kong so that Lee could try and make it there. While Cadwell had a difficult time adjusting to life in China, she was happy to support her husband’s dreams, which saw him become a major star in Asia.

A horrible tragedy

In 1971, the film The Big Boss was released in Hong Kong with Lee in a leading role. It was released in America in 1973 as Fist of Fury and was a hit at the box office. It seemed as though Bruce Lee had finally gotten his big break into Hollywood, so his wife and children repacked their things and headed back to the US.

Bruce Lee laying on the floor, a dagger in the floor beside his head
Bruce Lee died in 1973 after what was reported to be an allergic reaction to prescription medication. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Upon their return, rumors spread that suggested that Lee was unfaithful to Cadwell, but she shut those down fast. “Having been married to Bruce for nine years and being the mother of our two children,” she said, “I am more than qualified to give a correct recital of the facts.” The family continued to live happily until Lee unexpectedly died on July 20, 1973. He was only 32 years old.

Her husband’s death was devastating to Cadwell. He died at the house of his co-star Betty Ting Pei, which fueled rumors of his infidelity even more. While there were several theories as to how he died, including at the h ands of gangsters, the autopsy reported that he died from brain edema, which is the swelling of the brain. Doctors believe it was caused by an allergic reaction to prescription pain medication that only Lee knew about and had failed to identify to others.

While processing her grief, Cadwell published the book, Bruce Lee, The Man Only I Knew, in 1975. She later went on to remarry in 1988, to Tom Bleecker, but the two divorced shortly after in 1990. Cadwell then married Bruce Cadwell in 1991, and she still lives with him in southern California.

She lost her son in an accident on set

Sadly, tragedy would strike the Lee family again in the decades that followed. Bruce Lee and his wife’s son, Brandon, decided that he would follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career as an actor in Hollywood. Both of Lee’s children were raised learning the martial arts style their father developed, so Brandon brought many of the same skills his father did to the action genre.

Photo of Brandon Lee
Brandon Lee was killed by a gun shot from a prop gun during filming of The Crow in 1993. (Photo Credit: Barry King / WireImage / Getty Images)

At some point in his career, he is said to have met with comic book legend Stan Lee who believed Brandon would be the perfect candidate to bring the role of “Shang-Chi” to life. However, comic book films in the early 1990s were not the mega moneymakers that they are now, so Brandon supposedly turned down the role. Instead, he chose to be cast in a role for the film The Crow, which would become a fatal mistake.

During filming on March 31, 1993, Brandon was shot and killed with what was thought to be a prop gun that had been used during a stunt. When Cadwell found out, she couldn’t comprehend the loss of her son. “It is beyond my realm of cosmic thinking to think that it was meant to be,” she explained. “It just happened. I’m not beginning to make sense of it. I just think we were fortunate that he had as many years as he did. They say time cures anything. It doesn’t. You just learn to live with it and go on.”

Afterward, Cadwell sued 14 different entities, claiming that crew members on set did not follow standard protocols of safe firearm use. It also alleged that after running out of dummy bullets, their impatience to continue filming instead of waiting a day for more dummy bullets led them to fill the prop gun with live ammunition.

Despite what filming had done to her son, Cadwell still supported the completion and release of the film, explaining that “Brandon was a young man who had found his own identity” beyond the shadow of his father who deserved to be seen by the public.

Like her husband’s teachings, she adapted like water

Cadwell has bravely navigated the loss of her husband and her son. Taking a page out of her husband’s philosophy, which states, “Adapt what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own,” she’s figured out a way to adapt to these events. As Bruce Lee wrote in his book, “You must be shapeless, formless, like water,” which is exactly what his wife tried to do.

Linda Lee Cadwell with her daughter Shannon Lee.
Linda Lee Cadwell and her daughter, Shannon Lee, founded The Bruce Lee Foundation in 2002. (Photo Credit: Albert L. Ortega / WireImage / Getty Images)

Cadwell returned to school to complete her remaining college credits to graduate, going on to become a kindergarten teacher. Later, she and her daughter founded The Bruce Lee Foundation in 2002, which is a non-profit organization that spreads Lee’s philosophies and martial arts teachings.

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In her own approach to life, Cadwell explained that “Life changes as you go along, and as Bruce always used to say, ‘To change with change is the changeless state.’ So it’s like that water flowing – you never step in the same water twice in a river. It’s always flowing. So you always have to go with the change.”

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!