What It Was Like to Have Bruce Lee as a Houseguest

How the indomitable martial artist shaped the lives of four Seattle brothers.

Jake Palmer regarded Bruce Lee as a friend and a teacher. Courtesy of Bruce Lee Enterprises

It started with a phone call one day in September 1963.

“It was Bruce Lee saying his landlord had just kicked him out,” Doug Palmer would later remember. “He asked if he could stay with us for a few days, and Ida said ‘Yes.’ ”

Ida—Doug’s wife and the mother of their four boys—laughed at the memory. “Five minutes later, he appeared on our doorstep with a suitcase. He must have made the call from the phone booth at 34th and Union.”

The Palmers lived at 1542 Grand Avenue, a few blocks from my family’s house on Madrona Place East. I made the trek regularly to play with the youngest of the brothers, Cam. Saturday nights often found me bunking there. However, my regular visits didn’t start until about 1965—nearly two years after Bruce’s memorable stay. By the time I entered their lives, Bruce Lee was a memory, but a vivid one.

Ten-year-old Cam had endless Bruce stories to share.

“Bruce can hit Jake with a one-inch punch and send him flying halfway across the room. Whoop-bam!”

“Bruce can tear a phone book in half.”

“Bruce can chop a brick in two with his hand.”

Kevin Palmer, 13 at the time, was equally impressed. “I worshipped the ground he walked on,” he told me about a decade ago when I asked the family to share with me their memories of Bruce—via anecdotes, e-mails, and written reflections. What emerged was the portrait of a young man on the cusp of something great, both a gifted perfectionist and a witty, polite, trendy person.

This was before he was famous—the first international martial-arts megastar of hit movies like Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon—and before his very presence could stop traffic on the streets of Hong Kong. He was just Bruce, standing alone on a front stoop in Seattle, suitcase in hand.

To the two older Palmer sons, he was an incredible sparring partner, physically and intellectually. To the two younger sons, he burned like a Roman candle—intense, magical, and cool—the original Bruce Almighty.

Bruce Lee would have been 75 this Friday, November 27—a milestone that evokes yet again the man in his remarkable fullness. Yes, he was a genius and pop-culture icon, but also a man with everyday quirks, needs, hopes, and vulnerabilities, as the Palmer family witnessed in the fall of 1963, when Bruce spent six weeks as their houseguest.

The Palmer Family. Courtesy of Doug (Jake) Palmer Jr.

The dinner table at the Palmer house was a lively place. Discussions centered on current events, especially the growing tensions surrounding Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement, with frequent forays into pop culture: the latest John Wayne movie, Lou Rawls release, or Prince Valiant comic-strip installment. Doug had been a Marine Corps captain in World War II and emanated discipline. He loved most things Irish and Scottish, including sentimental ballads. Like the father, the sons had rich singing voices. They could sing, even in brogue, the many verses of Clancy Brothers songs. Another favorite was Marty Robbins’ interminable “Ballad of the Alamo.”

With Doug presiding at the table, the sons spoke in reasoned and respectful tones. When he left, however, modesty and formality exited with him. The brothers took to ribbing, slapstick, and one-upmanship. Laughter—belly laughter—was a prominent characteristic of the Palmer brothers. My friend Cam, a precocious cornstalk, inhaled this masculine energy, and by age 10 was brimming with hubris.

Enter Bruce Lee.

“Bruce was a quick wit and practical joker,” Kevin remembered. “He loved conversation, but he always was aware that Doug was the host at the dinner table.”

Mike agrees. “He was respectful and polite with elders—his upbringing. My folks remarked on that.”

As a guest, Bruce set a strict example of discipline for the younger boys.

“Was he ever an eye-opener,” Doug said. “When it came to chores, Kevin and Cam were a couple of slack dudes. Bruce ironed his own shirts and cleaned his room, and he tried to get them to do the same.”

Looking back on Bruce Lee’s extended visit, other little things stood out.

Doug, who died in 2007, remembered Bruce taking him to lunch in Chinatown. “I nearly whoopsed when he ate a dish of chicken feet with gusto and sucked with relish on the scaly talons.”

Kevin recalled Bruce’s attention to grooming, how he shaved and primped while humming pop tunes, a favorite being Cliff Richard’s hit “I Can’t Ask for Anymore Than You.”

“Bruce wore his hair Ricky Nelson–style, with lots of Brylcreem,” Kevin said. In Jake’s room, where he bunked, the cowboy-themed wallpaper soon developed a grease spot where he propped his head.

Bruce Lee enjoys a First Hill snow day. Courtesy of Bruce Lee Enterprises

Ida, who died in 2011, remembered that Bruce never had socks in his dirty laundry (“though he did wear socks”) and that he tired of eating potatoes. (“ ‘Oh, Mrs. Palmer, I have to go to Chinatown to get rice.’ You see, I always served potatoes.”) She also remembered the time on the front stoop when he broke a brick with a swift chop of the hand. “We stood open-mouthed.”

“Once the lights were out, he liked to tell corny jokes,” Mike says. “He was his own biggest fan. Usually I had school the next day and wanted to get some sleep. But I remember him telling jokes, and how he responded with muted laughter under the covers, in consideration for the rest of the household. Maybe it would’ve been different if I understood Cantonese. He probably had some great jokes in Chinese.”

Once, to demonstrate his strength, Bruce asked 17-year-old Mike—then six feet tall and 195 pounds—to drape his full weight on Bruce’s back. At just under 5´8˝ and weighing about 140 pounds, Bruce proceeded to do a one-handed pushup.

Mike, a boxer and football player, found this kind of display of strength hard on the ego. “I remember standing by the light switch in our room, about to turn it off. Bruce was in bed. I said ‘You might be tough, but I could sneak up on you while you’re sleeping and take you out with a baseball bat.’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You could do that. But you’d better make sure the first blow lands, because you won’t get a second one.’ That was the end of the bat idea. He had the assurance; I had the uncertainty.”

The younger sons remembered pain as well. Both experienced Bruce’s infamous “clavicle hold,” a move he used in public demonstrations to get audience attention. The hold could render a bull-sized man powerless. “A lippy cynic was prime meat,” Mike remembers.

Cam, who died in 2001 of a heart condition, told me of the time he was reading on the living-room couch when Bruce walked in, placed four fingers on the back of his shoulder, and drove a thumb into the soft spot above the clavicle. Cam sat paralyzed. When Bruce eased up on the hold, Cam yelped in agony: “Why did you do that?” he demanded to know. Bruce explained that he was working to fine-tune the move and wanted to test it on Cam. Unimpressed with the explanation, Cam raced off in tears, shouting “Mom!”

Mike Palmer tries to put the clavicle-hold episodes into perspective. “Bruce could be overbearing, but not in a haughty way. He was very sure of himself, and that came across strongly when you spent time with him. If you were his friend and got a little too saucy, sometimes he used his clavicle hold to show you that that wasn’t acceptable. I didn’t look upon that as being cruel. I don’t think Bruce took any sadistic pleasure in it.”

At the time Bruce “dropped in,” the older Palmer boys, both students at Garfield High School, had sprouted into tall, raw-boned young men. Eighteen-year-old Jake had a scholarly bent. Mike, 17, was a standout on both the baseball diamond and gridiron. Starting in grade school, Jake and Mike had developed a passion for boxing, and by high school they were participating in amateur bouts and hanging out at the Knights of Columbus gym off Broadway, where amateurs and pros trained.

“Boxing was very important to me,” remembers Jake, an attorney who currently lives in Seattle. “Over the years, as I grew more competent, it gave me a lot of confidence, which has carried over to many situations, including confidence in unfamiliar surroundings abroad.”

It was Jake who formed the earliest and strongest friendship with Bruce. He had glimpsed the martial artist two years before at a Seafair event in Chinatown. That day, the street was choked with summertime revelers. In the distance, a young man was moving about a stage demonstrating a fiery brand of self-defense. Intrigued, Jake moved closer for a better look.

“I was mesmerized by his speed, grace, and obvious power, but also by the efficiency of his moves,” Jake recalls. He noted that Bruce used a fight system that “engaged all parts of the body, including legs and elbows,” not just the “fist work” he himself was trying to master in boxing.

After the event, Jake asked a mutual friend for an introduction. A week later, at Bon Odori, the Japanese community fair held every summer at Seattle Buddhist Church, Bruce walked up and introduced himself. “He seemed very self-possessed and confident,” Jake remembers, “yet also very open and polite.”

Despite the four-year difference—in August 1961, Jake Palmer was 16 and Bruce Lee 20—they hit it off. Bruce had a philosophical turn of mind, staggering self-discipline, and a gamin sense of humor, Jake recalls.

Jake had been boxing since fifth grade, when he participated in a class held weekly in the basement of Prospect Congregational Church on Capitol Hill. The teacher, Walter “Cap” Michael, had been a pro boxer in his younger days and, among local fight aficionados, was considered the consummate boxing instructor. Mike Palmer, too, was a student in Cap’s class. In the years to come, younger brothers Kevin and Cam would don gloves and learn “the sweet science of bruising” from Cap.

“Before I met Bruce, I saw boxing as the ultimate fighting sport,” Jake says. “After I met him, I saw that boxing could take you only so far—that gung fu was a natural continuation.”

Photo courtesy of Bruce Lee Enterprises

Bruce thrived in the role of teacher, and likely saw in this new gung fu student someone hungry for both martial-arts prowess and general life insights. As Bruce later wrote: “He who knows not and knows he knows not, he is simple—teach him.”

Their relationship drew Bruce Lee into the Palmer family’s wider circle, which involved frequent social gatherings at 1542 Grand Avenue, brotherly horseplay in the basement rec room, and, inevitably, demonstrations by Bruce of his one-inch punch, two-fingered pushups, or, a particular favorite, his “dime trick.” This trick called for a volunteer to stand with arm extended, palm up, holding a dime. As someone shouted “Now!,” the volunteer tried to close a hand around the coin. Inevitably, Bruce snatched the dime before the volunteer could make a fist. His reflexes were lightning-quick. “When he dropped by socially, it was pretty much as a friend, not teacher,” Jake says. “His moves were designed to demonstrate some impressive aspect of gung fu. He was always expanding the parameters and scope of his martial-arts approach. Or he was just goofing around.”

Bruce Lee’s life has been endlessly chronicled. Although films, books, and fan sites have exaggerated certain parts of the story, the vital facts remain: Born Lee Jun-fan in San Francisco on Nov. 27, 1940—biographers note that he was born not only in the Year of the Dragon, but also in the Hour of the Dragon, between 6 and 8 a.m.—he moved at age 1 with his parents to Hong Kong, settling into an apartment on Nathan Road in the Kowloon district. At 6 he began his career as an actor, appearing in a film called The Beginning of a Boy .

Over the next dozen years, he acted in more than 20 films. At age 13, reputedly after losing a street fight, he began to study gung fu under Sifu Yip Man, a master of the Wing Chun fighting system. Bruce also turned his prodigious athletic skills to dancing, specializing in the cha cha. The year 1958 was a banner one, with three notable wins: the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship, a leading role in a film called The Orphan, and a major Hong Kong boxing event, defeating reigning three-year champion Gary Elms.

By the measure of his peers, Bruce Lee, at 18, was a towering success. Yet the shiny surface masked a tarnished underside. Bruce was drawn to street mayhem and had frequent run-ins with the Hong Kong police. In 1959 his parents sent him to the United States to claim American citizenship. Another motive, according to some biographers, was to distance Bruce from the dark temptations of the Hong Kong streets. A long visit to the United States, his parents reasoned, might set Bruce on the right course.

In many ways this strategy worked. Arriving in San Francisco after three weeks at sea, Bruce took odd jobs and eventually moved to Seattle, where he worked as a waiter at Ruby Chow’s Chinese restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Jefferson. During this time, he worked on—and earned—his high-school equivalency diploma at Edison Technical School, located on what is now the campus of Seattle Central Community College.

Bruce returned to Hong Kong in the early summer of 1963—two years after meeting Jake Palmer and two months before his stay with the Palmers. It was his first visit home in nearly four years, and he invited Jake to join him for part of the summer. He wrote to Jake from Hong Kong: “Well, it’s been quite a time since I last heard from you. The water supply here is coming to crisis. . . . The temperature is around 95 degrees, and it’s like living in hell. My plan . . . is to leave at the end of July so if you don’t mind coming for around a month and then to Japan and Honolulu you are very welcome to stay in my house. In any case let me know ahead of time. Bruce.”

And the postscript: “Man! I can’t stand the heat.”

Jake leapt at the opportunity, and quickly negotiated a $600 loan from his dad.

Except for short forays into Canada, Jake had never been outside the United States, and the trip was to prove unforgettable—equal parts immersion in Asian culture and “goofing around.”

“I’d had a year of Mandarin and was hoping to use some of it,” Jake recalls. “As it turned out, this didn’t come to pass because few people in Hong Kong spoke much Mandarin. Cantonese was the local lingua franca.”

Jake stayed at the Lee family apartment on Nathan Road, setting out each day to explore the city by foot, streetcar, or funicular. He also spent time socializing with Bruce’s friends—many of them actors and actresses in the Hong Kong movie industry—or accompanying Bruce to train with Yip Man at the local “guan.”

In Hong Kong at this time, gung fu was viewed by many as a privileged art not to be shared with foreigners. So instead of participating in the training, Jake sat on the sidelines and pretended he didn’t know gung fu. “Bruce didn’t want anyone in the Hong Kong gung fu community to know that he was teaching gung fu to non-Chinese,” Jake says. “But in Honolulu, on our way back to the States, he gave a demo at a gung fu school and was unconstrained.”

The fall of 1963—the period overlapping his six-week stay with the Palmers—was pivotal for Bruce. He was synthesizing various martial-arts techniques and merging gung fu with other styles. The result would become his own brand of fighting, Jeet Kune Do—“The Way of the Intercepting Fist.”

Bruce was also experiencing an upswing in his romantic life. He had recently proposed to girlfriend Amy Sanbo, but was turned down. Now he was captivated by a blonde Garfield cheerleader named Linda Emery. Jake, on the other hand, had started dating a Chinese girl. Both girls’ parents were leery of interracial dating and set strict dating guidelines. Jake recalls one evening in which he picked up Linda at her door and Bruce picked up Jake’s girlfriend, and they switched dates once they got in the car. “We laughed about it—beating the parents at their game, but we also thought it was unfortunate,” Jake says. Bruce and Linda eventually married, and became the parents of Brandon and Shannon Lee.

Meanwhile, 13-year-old Kevin Palmer, a budding artist, did pen-and-ink drawings of Bruce in various gung fu poses. “Just simple position sketches,” Kevin remembered. Following graduation from Garfield, Mike Palmer entered Stanford. As a member of the university’s boxing team, he was intrigued by Bruce’s ability to analyze and utilize the most efficient moves in self-defense. “Bruce had a gift of mental and physical speed combined with power. I admired him for that.”

Mike remembers an evening he spent with Bruce during his sophomore year at Stanford. By then, Bruce was breaking ground in Hollywood as the first Asian star of an American TV show, The Green Hornet, in which he played the sidekick Kato.

“He was starting to incorporate different moves into his system of self-defense, and he felt that American boxing might be helpful,” Mike says.” Bruce and Mike spent the evening at a friend’s house in Oakland watching old boxing highlights of heavyweight greats Jack Dempsey, Max Baer, and Joe Louis, complete with Bruce’s commentaries on punching power. Bruce would back up the film and run it in slow motion. “Watch this, Mike,” Mike recalls his saying. “Once we watched Jack Dempsey floor Jess Willard with a left hook. I found that instructive in a positive sense. I thought ‘Maybe I could use that.’”

Mike saw Bruce for the last time in the summer of 1968 in Los Angeles, when the second-oldest Palmer son was invited to join the movie star and his wife for dinner at the family home. Afterward, Bruce showed Mike a new move—two steps followed by a swift waist-high snapping kick. As Bruce explained the move, Mike positioned himself with a blocking pad. “Having been a football player, I was familiar with the use of the blocking dummy,” Mike says. “I checked the distance to the wall, leaned into the kick, and braced myself. One, two—wham! His kick lifted me up onto my toes and I backpedaled until the wall absorbed my impact. As always with Bruce, the power of the blow impressed me.”

Jake saw Bruce for the last time during a visit to Hong Kong in the early 1970s. When the two went out to dinner with their wives, everyone on the street seemed to recognize Bruce. In their cab, the driver signaled his excitement to other cab drivers. When they stepped into a crowded restaurant, the waiters immediately found a table, even though they had no reservations and the place was packed. “I don’t think the other tables even got served—all the waiters were hovering around us,” Jake remembers. He marveled at the impact of stardom on his friend. Yet, at the core, Bruce seemed unaffected. “He seemed more mature in many ways,” he says.

On July 20, 1973, not long after Jake last saw Bruce, the actor died due to cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain triggered by an allergic reaction to a headache medicine. He was 32, and though he died in Hong Kong, he was laid to rest in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery.

Contemplating the 75 years since Bruce’s birth—and the nearly 42 since his untimely death—Jake Palmer weighs the friend with whom he passed countless hours against the legend.

“I miss the little things—his corny jokes, his going out of his way to help friends, his generosity and open-mindedness. I also miss his genius, since I believe he truly was a genius, and opened up gung fu to the world outside of China . . . and Chinatowns. I guess it doesn’t surprise me that he still commands attention. Bruce was like Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali in his prime. He was somebody who stood above everyone else. It’s not that the other martial artists weren’t good. It’s just that he was great.”

Mike Palmer remembers Bruce’s self-confidence. “To meet a guy that seemed infallible and untouchable was difficult to believe. And for me, at 17, a boxer and football player, it was frustrating for my ego to accept, especially when I had to have him as a roommate. Bruce was one unique hombre, that’s for sure.”

Sadly, Kevin Palmer died in 2007 after a long illness. However, in one of our many conversations about Bruce, he tried to sort myth from memory. “My kids never met him, so they’re in awe,” Kevin told me. “They can’t believe Bruce Lee lived in our house, ate at our table, taught us gung fu. I worshipped the ground he walked on, but he wasn’t bigger than life, he was just a man.”

On that day, Kevin shook his head and broke into a wide grin. “But he was a bad-assed man.”


Thanks to Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience for many of the photos accompanying this story. For more on Bruce Lee, check out the second installment of the museum’s three-part exhibition “Do You Know Bruce?”, on display through September 4, 2016. wingluke.org

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