Art & Culture

Published on March 16th, 2016 | by Kirsten King

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To Walk a Thin Line: Philippe Petit’s Crossing of the Twin Towers

 “All of a sudden the density of the air is no longer the same. Manhattan no longer spreads its infinity. The murmur of the city dissolves into a squall whose chilling power I no longer feel. I lift the balancing pole. I approach the edge….” These were the sensations racing through Philippe Petit’s mind moments before commencing his famous walk between the towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. Dubbed the “artistic crime of the century,” the event is still marveled at, continuing to evoke international enthusiasm and excitement. The numerous and diverse means of retelling or recreating his 1974 adventure — a recently-released feature film, an Oscar-winning documentary, a children’s book awarded the Caldecott medal, even popular songs — speak to its timelessness.

Petit, who turns 67 this year, has made over 70 walks worldwide. Throughout his impressive career he has set his sights on “masterpiece” walks including one over an area near the Grand Canyon and another on Easter Island. While his other unauthorized endeavors or “coups” have included the steeples of Notre Dame and the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (where the spectacle held up traffic for over an hour), Petit’s trek between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center remains his coup de maître — a credit undoubtedly due, at least in part, to its elaborate heist-like plotting. Petit seems to have always had an inclination toward the mischievous, and underlying the global applause for his unlawful actions, there seems to be a shared fascination with the criminal turn of mind and its cleverness.

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Photo by Pinterest.

A lifelong nonconformist, the same headstrong attitude and free-spirited nature that prompted his adult coups were apparent as a youth in suburban Paris. By the age of six, Petit’s education had taken a backseat to pursuits such as magic tricks. But wire walking, a spectacular art form dating back as far as ancient Greece, proved to be Petit’s discipline of choice and, indeed, his calling. With intense practice and tricks of the trade passed along to him by the prominent tightrope walker Rudolf Omankowsky, Petit believed he had mastered the wire within a year.

Having no use for what he perceived as the confines of circus life, Petit worked as an independent entertainer, channeling his talents as a self-taught street artist in the Saint-Germain des Près quarter of Paris. Putting on his own shows in a persona he created and developed, his stage a ring of white chalk, Petit was able to make a living from small donations by his patrons and his own light fingers, at the cost of some 500 arrests. By the time he was 22, Petit was an accomplished funambule, performing for the likes of Picasso and, no doubt, practicing for that which he was most anxious to bring off — a walk between the Twin Towers.

Petit remembers first encountering the landmark high-risers when leafing through a newspaper in a Parisian dentist’s office, while waiting to be treated for toothache. The towers were not even in existence at the time. Still under construction, they were a shared dream for both Petit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which had just broken ground on the project; they were to be the tallest structures in the world.

Excited at the prospect of the new and paramount site to string his wire, Petit forwent his treatment to begin plans for his latest venture while these castles in the air were erected. Petit tore the illustrated page from the publication, masking his movement with a feigned sneeze. This was step one, and the most minor, of his covert activities. His mind and heart set on walking between the towers, Petit went to work relentlessly devising his third illegal performance, a process that would take over six years from start to finish.

In his room off the rue Laplace, Petit busied himself drawing out diagrams, building a scale model of the World Trade Center, and hatching out a scheme to complete the walk 1,350 feet above Manhattan’s bustling pavements, an undertaking he could not see through alone.

Whether through his disarming and eccentric personality, an attraction to an unattainable goal, or the shared spirit of the time, Petit soon found himself at the center of a team of willing collaborators, joined through long-established relationships as well as sympathetic, and often serendipitous, new ones. The crew consisted of childhood friends including Jean-Louis Blondeau, who had assisted in Petit’s two previous coups, and Jean-François Heckel, who would capture (now iconic) shots of Petit in action, as well as Petit’s sweetheart and supporter, Annie Allix. Petit also had the encouragement of Mark Lewis, whom Petit had befriended in Australia. He gained financial backing from a renowned German juggler Francis Brunn, whose wife would, ironically, try to quash the coup by tipping off the authorities in an attempt to save Petit’s life.

Together, the team puzzled over how to span the 140-foot distance between the skyscrapers and stabilize the wire that would link opposite corners of the buildings. Connecting sections of rope and fishing line, they settled on using a bow and arrow to carry the 450-pound cable across the void that separated the towers and would use cavalettis to help reduce vibration. They also tried to anticipate the various conditions Petit would encounter once he had engaged his wire, including the air itself. To simulate the forceful wind at such a height, Petit practiced walking on a wire as it was violently shaken by his partners in crime.

The second phase of planning continued across the Atlantic, and Petit’s list of recruits grew to include New York’s own Jim Moore and Barry Greenhouse, their inside man at the World Trade Center. Assistant Director of Research for the New York State Insurance Department, Greenhouse’s office on the 82nd floor of the south tower was prime real estate for giving Petit and his cohorts access to the roof.

Greenhouse had seen Petit perform in Paris and noticed him again in the lobby of the WTC. When Greenhouse learned of Petit’s business in New York, he was eager to lend a hand. He supplied the team with forged security badges and ushered them up the north tower. After a string of journeys between the U.S. and France, an upwards of 200 visits to the towers, and preparations that included renting a helicopter for surveillance, Petit’s aspiration was becoming less of a dream and more of a reality — one that would be harder and harder to back out of.

The day before his coup, Petit and his team dressed as contractors, one of many convincing costumes in their array of disguises, and headed for the WTC. With a rental van and Petit’s equipment stowed away in wooden packing cases, his team was lucky to make it as far as the 104th floor of the south tower where they would have to hide until nightfall. To avoid being spotted by unexpected construction workers, Petit and Heckel quickly cached themselves under a nearby tarp, only to discover that beneath it was an unfinished elevator shaft with only an 8-inch beam to keep them from plummeting down it.

Meanwhile, from the north tower, Blondeau shot the arrow linked to the wire over to Petit once the coast was clear. The arrow landed on the corresponding tower, but only just, and unable to see the fishing line in the dark, Petit took off all of his clothing in order to feel it against his bare skin. Using wired radio communications (to avoid unwanted police interception), the two teams coordinated their movements in setting up the cable. They would have to have it rigged before the workers returned to the job site at seven in the morning.

During the rigging, the cable slipped abruptly under its own weight, and although not a total disaster, it had to be pulled up manually by both pairs of men. In a fit of panic and convinced that they could not make the wire taut in time, Blondeau’s partner, Alan Welner, buckled. Blondeau was left to take up the sagging wire on his own while Petit and Heckel worked just as furiously from the other end. The wire remained ominously slack by sunrise, and Petit was still struggling with the guy lines only 15 minutes before his deadline.

Just after seven in the morning, the teams had finished. Behind schedule, the line was mounted but drooping. Having had no sleep for the last 36 hours and physically exhausted from the haphazard rigging, Petit was fighting fatigue and recovering from an injury to his foot — it had been punctured by a stray nail during one of his investigative exploits — when he finally faced the point of no return. The odds of a successful walk seemed stacked against him, but it was now or never.

“I step over the beam. I put my left foot on the cable, the weight of my body raised on my right leg anchored to the flank of the building… on one side, a mass of a mountain, a life I know. On the other, the universe of the clouds, so full of unknown.”

At long last confronted with the quarter-mile drop below him, Petit said it was “certitude, a faith” that brought him fully onto the treacherous cable with no safety wire, no net. Confident he would make it to the other side, Petit proceeded to perform the impossible, making not one, but eight crosses between the towers. A large audience had gathered below to watch the daredevil.

As intimates and strangers gazed up, they gasped suddenly at a figure falling toward them and sighed with relief when they realized Petit was still perched on his line — he had only lost the cloak to his ensemble.

During the 45-minute stunt, Petit kept his onlookers spellbound. He managed to lie down on the inch-thick wire as well as kneel to look upon the people, saluting them and the trunks of the towers below, taking in the moment from his space in the clouds.

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Philippe Petit photographed by Annie Leibovitz with his muse, the twin towers, in the background. Photo by Pinterest.

By now, the NYPD and Port Authority officers were on the rooftops of both buildings attempting to coax Petit to return to safety. He responded to their outstretched arms with taunts, pretending to give himself up and then quickly breaking free of their wavering clutches. Police would later say Petit wasn’t simply traversing the wire, but running and dancing.

When their requests became threats of “taking him out” and using aerial assistance to snatch him from his wire, Petit continued to smile and laugh while enjoying his relative freedom, but he began to cut the comedy. At this point, the gusts of wind were becoming stronger, and Petit conceded only when it began to rain. Once back on terra firma, Petit was immediately arrested, taken for a psychiatric evaluation, and charged for both trespassing and disorderly conduct. The notes in the formal report were logged as “man on wire.”

Later that afternoon, the District Attorney’s office proposed a deal, what Petit told the New York Times was “the most beautiful punishment I could have received” — the suggested atonement for his offense was a literal walk in the park. Charges against him were dropped when Petit agreed to give a free performance for children above Central Park’s Belvedere Lake.

The press was all over the incident. Petit was instantly the most talked-about man in America. In fact, two days after the walk, Richard Nixon upon resigning from presidency following the Watergate scandal, remarked: “I wish I had the publicity that Frenchman had.”

Petit had committed a crime, and the worldwide attention he received was, far and away, a kind of approval. An overnight celebrity, Petit was met by a throng of fans when he was released from custody. Even so, the entire process of the coup placed a strain on several of Petit’s relationships, from differences in opinion when planning to arguments over sacrifices his co-conspirators had made.

The prolonged fear of possibly losing Petit forever had taken the greatest toll. Even decades afterward, some of them were brought to tears simply remembering the chance of his fall. For several of his companions, it was easier to put some distance between themselves and the charismatic Petit than to continue to worry about someone they so clearly cared for, someone with such blind and dangerous ambitions.

Petit was inundated with offers from several different enterprises: a contract for an instructional book through Publishers Weekly, a movie deal with MGM, liquor endorsements and commercials. Burger King even asked him to don a Whopper outfit for a stunt over 8th Avenue. Petit declined all of these, save one. The Port Authority presented Petit with a lifetime pass to the observation deck at the top of the south tower — this he gladly accepted, along with an invitation to leave his signature on one of the building’s beams.

Creative, if criminal, his story is a balancing act of extremes and dualities, where conflicting notions and contradictory terms teeter on the narrow boundary that separates them. Where his desire was concerned, Petit was blinkered and stubborn, and with such disregard for rules and official channels, he bordered on counter-culturalism and madness. He had a choice to make between applying for permission to take that walk or breaking all the rules and seizing the opportunity to do something ultimately good. As often as he has compared the conspiring that went on behind the scenes of his coup to a bank robbery, the kind in classic French gangster films, Petit and his accomplices were not taking but giving.

In his own life, Petit was willing to face the unpredictable consequences of such a wild objective over the security found in the steadfast and unchanging. His talent reflects both rigid discipline as well as unbridled living, and his audience must decide whether a walk like this is sheer spectacle or living art.

Accounts of Petit’s achievement may never grow old, not merely owing to the thrill of the exploit itself, but because of what he gave the world that day in 1974 and what representations of that moment in history continue to give people everywhere: something to wake us from seemingly persistent nightmares in an age when acts of benevolence are often overshadowed by destruction and fear. While Petit’s walk cannot be relived today without also bearing in mind the pain and horror of the September 11th attacks, the memory of his effort reminds us of existence without limits, a bridge between cultures, and universal understanding.

Barry Greenhouse touched on this idea some time ago when reflecting on Petit’s walk, now nearly 42 years past, and that tragic day in 2001: “I was really angry at everything… I was angry about the people being killed. But I wasn’t romantic about the buildings. It was romantic, what Philippe did. I’d say he found the best use for them.”

Petit’s vision is undeniably one of hope and rising above the insurmountable. He believes that “by inspiring ourselves, we inspire others,” urging us to “look at the world from a different perspective… and when you see mountains, remember mountains can be moved.”

This article was proofread in English by Linda Quinet.


About the Author

is an English teacher (both language and literature). Kirsten completed her Master's degree in the UK, and is currently working on a PhD thesis. She is usually happiest when traveling; she reads a lot, and enjoys writing when she has a spare moment.



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