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As a passenger aeroplane flies seemingly very close to Petit, and the top of the World Trade Center, in this image taken from the ground – some 1,350 feet below – the enormity of the Frenchman’s achievement is made clear. Photo AP

As a passenger aeroplane flies seemingly very close to Petit, and the top of the World Trade Center, in this image taken from the ground – some 1,350 feet below – the enormity of the Frenchman’s achievement is made clear. Photo AP

Is it a Bird, a Plane, or Superman?

On a shimmering day in August 1974, Philippe Petit balanced precariously on a wire 110 stories above Manhattan – and looked down…

To me it’s so simple, that life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion; to refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge, and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope.

-Philippe Petit

People in Lower Manhattan stopped in their tracks to watch a strange event in the sky—not a bird, not a plane, and certainly not Superman. In 1974, just a year after the Twin Towers were completed, a French tightrope artist, Philip Petit set out to achieve his ultimate goal: to string and walk a wire between the Towers.

Combining the cunning of a second story man with the nerve of an Evel Knievel, a French high wire artist sneaked past guards at the World Trade center, ran a cable between the tops of its twin towers and tightrope walked across it in the early morning.

Hundreds of spectators created traffic jam shortly after 7:15 A.M. in the streets 1,350 feet below as they watched the black clad figure outlined against the gray morning sky tiptoeing back and forth across the meticulously rigged 131-foot cable.

Philippe Petit went to New York for the first time in January 1974. The twin towers of the World Trade Center would be formally dedicated on 4 April: but even then they were not fully complete or occupied. When he sneaked into the north tower for the first time, the buildings were still under construction. He rode elevators and ran up staircases to evade security guards. It took him an hour to get to the roof. The next day he returned with his friend Jim Moore, a photographer, and took the same route to the 110th floor. Philippe explained what he had in mind. He showed Jim the drop. Jim just went white. ‘You’re insane,’ he whispered.

Philippe returned to Paris and, ignoring the advice of his friends, began to make preparations. He read everything he could find about the towers and compiled a file of information. In April, he was back in New York again. He made money with his street juggling – nobody in Manhattan had ever seen anything like it – and began sneaking into the towers every day. He roamed through the buildings for hours, dodging guards, taking photographs and making sketches, noting access routes, security patrol routes, equipment clearances. He obtained numerical security codes; hired a surveyor’s measuring wheel to determine the distance between the buildings; rented a helicopter to photograph them from above. He found that on windy days, the turbulence on the roof of the towers made it impossible even to stand up without holding on to something; and that the buildings swayed in a strong wind: enough to snap a steel cable tensioned between the towers. And he discovered the police station in the basement.philippe-petit-image

PHILIPPE PETIT, 1974 During one of his 8 crossings on the wire suspended 1,3500 foot above the ground, Philippe Petit sits down before getting back up during the unbelievable stunt on Aug. 7, 1974.

PHILIPPE PETIT, 1974
During one of his 8 crossings on the wire suspended 1,3500 foot above the ground, Philippe Petit sits down before getting back up during the unbelievable stunt on Aug. 7, 1974.

High above the streets of New York, Petit walked the wire between the world’s tallest building’s two towers, and felt so confident that he took to showboating – as evidenced by this extraordinary shot. The Frenchman is shown lying down on the wire while balancing his bar across his chest with his arms well away. Philippe Petit not only walked the wire, but danced, lay down and saluted shocked watchers from a kneeling position a quarter of a mile above the ground as he performed on the wire between the Twin Towers.

High above the streets of New York, Petit walked the wire between the world’s tallest building’s two towers, and felt so confident that he took to showboating – as evidenced by this extraordinary shot. The Frenchman is shown lying down on the wire while balancing his bar across his chest with his arms well away. Philippe Petit not only walked the wire, but danced, lay down and saluted shocked watchers from a kneeling position a quarter of a mile above the ground as he performed on the wire between the Twin Towers.

philippe-petit-images

So, with the help of a clutch of assistants and friends, the Frenchman, then 24, managed to gain access to the 110th storey of the tallest building in the world. The audacious feat would catapult Petit to overnight stardom, as well as arrest. Petit a tightrope walker, risked certain death with his stunt, as he crossed the 200ft (61 metre) gap between the two iconic towers. He would pass along the wire eight times in his 45-minute performance – and felt confident enough to showboat on occasion – before being ordered down by the local police force.

Tightrope walk across World Trade Center (1974)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAVj2IVC9ko]

The original CBS News broadcast documents the unimaginable feat, including an interview with the police officer who eventually talked Petit down from the wire. According to the officer, the performance was “supreme. The apex of excitement.”

Danger is not an element that figures in Petit’s calculations. As he often says, he takes no risks. What he means is that he prepares so thoroughly for each walk—learning everything there is to learn about the site (weather, wind patterns, history, geological or architectural features, etc.), rigging his cable and cavalletti according to ultra-conservative safety factors, and trusting his own phenomenal powers of concentration to rule out any misstep—that the danger, although real and present, is subject to his control.

“I prepare by reducing the unknown to nothing, but also by knowing my limits. If I think I am a hero who is invincible, I will pay for it with my life.”

Petit’s incredible achievement were captured for eternity by his assistants, who had helped him up on to the South Tower and carted the kit – including the 60-metre cable needed to steady the main wire – up the North Tower. Jean-Louis Blondeau, a friend of Petit’s from childhood, had hidden with Welner and then fired the wire across cleverly using a cross-bow. With it being the dead of night, Petit was forced to remove his clothes so he could feel for it brushing on his skin. Without the support of his crew, the Frenchman would have never have been able to achieve his dream.

Petit, began his walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center just after dawn on 7 August 1974. Ideally the Frenchman and his crew would have wanted more time to steady the wire, but when they heard the sound of the elevator shaft, they knew they had to move quickly. The construction workers heading to the top of the world’s tallest building would be about to start their day. It was about 7am, and as people below travelled to their offices they spotted the 24-year-old a quarter of a mile above them. Initially they thought it was a “jumper” – someone attempting suicide. In fact they were witnessing what would become known as the “artistic crime of the century.” Petit embarked on a thrilling aerial display and, showing extreme confidence, began to showboat during his 45-minute walk, which he had been planning since he was 18.

It may have been six years in the making, but took very little time for the 24-year-old to steady himself when he was actually on the high-wire, despite being 1,350 feet high and having to deal with wind gusts. He performed for three-quarters of an hour, before being ordered down by New York police officers. In total he make eight passes along the wire, during which he walked, danced, and he even lay down, and at one point he was just hanging by his heels, he also knelt to salute onlookers.

Crowds gathered on the streets below, drivers left their cars to witness the amazing feat. Petit said later he could hear their murmuring and cheers.

He was the first and last man to walk between the twin towers. Petit, delighted the financial district morning commuters who noticed the tiny speck in the sky waltzing and lounging on a one-inch-wide wire.

He prepared for the stunt by practising tightrope walking, studying the towers – having convinced New York-based photographer friend Jim Moore to take reconnaissance images on a helicopter flight in January 1974 – and illegally reached the roof by posing as a French journalist. Barry Greenhouse, an insurance executive who worked on the 82nd floor in the South Tower, was persuaded to forge security passes for Petit.

Petit, who walked between the twin towers of the World Trade Center for approximately 45 minutes, would have continued to showboat had the New York police not threatened him. And even then he needed persuading to halt his performance. The Frenchman, recalling his “coup”, said: “Suddenly the shouting hurled at me reaches my ears, because this time, the words are in French. It is Jean-François [Heckel, one of his assistants on the South Tower of the World Trade Center and a childhood friend], terrified by the threats of the police – they say they’re going to loosen the tension on the wire, they say they’re going to send a helicopter to snatch me from mid-air – who has agreed to translate their latest message: ‘Stop right now or we’ll take you out!’ For a second I despise Jean-François, but then I understand: he believes them.”

At one point, he even laid down on the cable.

At one point, he even laid down on the cable.

In this image the tightrope walker, who risked certain death with his stunt, looks back at the camera, poised and ready to cross the 200ft (61 metre) gap between the two iconic towers. He would pass along the wire eight times in his 45-minute performance – and felt confident enough to showboat on occasion – before being ordered down by the local police force. Petit crossed the cable multiple times and rested in between. Credit: AP

In this image the tightrope walker, who risked certain death with his stunt, looks back at the camera, poised and ready to cross the 200ft (61 metre) gap between the two iconic towers. He would pass along the wire eight times in his 45-minute performance – and felt confident enough to showboat on occasion – before being ordered down by the local police force. Petit crossed the cable multiple times and rested in between. Credit: AP

Finally, after perhaps 45 minutes of knee bends and other stunts, Philippe Petit, balancing pole in hand, turned himself over to waiting policemen.

“If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk,” the professional stuntman explained afterward in heavily accented English, punctuating his sentences with a Gallic “bon!”

The local police took a somewhat humourless attitude, arrested Petit and two assistants after he eventually was convinced to step off his high wire between the twin towers. Petit was arrested by policemen of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and booked for disorderly conduct and criminal trespass.

Fearing he was insane, they took the Frenchman to Beekman-Downtown Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. He was quickly determined perfectly sane and, later on the same day, the charges laid against the 24-year-old by the New York police department were dismissed in exchange for his doing a performance in Central Park for children. When attempting to explain his art, he later would say:

“Many people use the words ‘death defying’ or ‘death wishing’ when they talk about wire walking. Many people have asked me: ‘So do you have a death wish?’ After doing a beautiful walk, I feel like punching them in the nose. It’s indecent. I have a life wish.”

Another famous image of Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers, which dwarfed the Empire State building – formerly the globe’s tallest construction – and can be seen in the background of this photograph. Photo AP

Another famous image of Petit’s walk between the World Trade Center’s twin towers, which dwarfed the Empire State building – formerly the globe’s tallest construction – and can be seen in the background of this photograph. Photo AP

This iconic image – again captured by Petit’s American assistant Welner – shows the Frenchman’s delight while performing what he called “le coup”. This photograph clearly shows the funambulist’s grin; he cannot mask his sheer joy at walking between the twin towers of World Trade Center, then the planet’s tallest building. Photo AP

This iconic image – again  shows the Frenchman’s delight while performing what he called “le coup”. This photograph clearly shows the funambulist’s grin; he cannot mask his sheer joy at walking between the twin towers of World Trade Center, then the planet’s tallest building. Photo AP

Having been arrested by New York police, and asked by the press why Petit had risked his life by walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, he famously answered: “There is no ‘why’. When I see a beautiful place to put my wire I cannot resist. I see three oranges and I have to juggle. I see two towers and I have to walk.”

He later said: “To me, it’s really so simple: life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion, to refuse to tape yourself to the rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, and every idea as a true challenge. Then you will live your life on the tightrope.”

With the consultation of Parks Commissioner, there was a deal made with Mr. Petit to drop the charges in exchange for a free aerial performance in a city park “for the children of the city.” The day was an extraordinary climax to many months of scheming by Mr. Petit, a native of Nemours, France, and three accomplices.

In talking with reporters, the tightrope walker repeatedly insisted that his feat was done not for money or publicity, but simply because the 110 story towers were there.

“When I see two towers, just want to put my wire across, bon!” he said, adding that he had pulled off similar stunts between the towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia in 1973 and the spires of Notre Dame in Paris in 1971.

Ropewalking had its origins in ancient Greece. It spread to Rome in the time of Marcus Aurelius and became hugely popular during the Middle Ages, when acrobats danced and performed high above the heads of spectators at major public events, or ascended and descended inclined ropes attached to the bell towers of cathedrals and other high places. The immense popularity of these spectacles eventually led to their being shut down by the clergy, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the art of rope dancing, as it had come to be called, was confined to small theatres in Paris and a few other cities.

IMAGE: ASSOCIATED PRESS

IMAGE: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Philippe Petit on the cable between the Twin Towers. AP Photo

Philippe Petit on the cable between the Twin Towers. AP Photo

Philippe Petit not only walked the wire, but danced, lay down and saluted shocked watchers from a kneeling position a quarter of a mile above the ground as he performed on the wire between the Twin Towers on Aug. 7, 1974.

Philippe Petit not only walked the wire, but danced, lay down and saluted shocked watchers from a kneeling position a quarter of a mile above the ground as he performed on the wire between the Twin Towers on Aug. 7, 1974.

Growing up in the suburbs of Paris, an absurdly rebellious middle child in a bourgeois family, Petit taught himself to walk on a rope by stretching several ropes between two trees in a meadow on the family’s country estate and then taking them away one at a time. Other passions competed in those years—magic, juggling, classical equitation, fencing, theatre, drawing, bullfighting.

All played havoc with his education (he was kicked out of five schools) and tried the patience of his father, Edmond Petit, a French Army pilot and an author. (His “World History of Aviation” is currently in its ninth printing.) The wire won out, but when Rudolf Omankowsky, the leader of a famous troupe of touring wire walkers called Les Diables Blancs, offered to train Petit as a circus performer Petit declined.

He paid Papa Rudy to show him the techniques of rigging and securing wire cables, and learned the rest on his own. Petit swears that he has no special athletic abilities or sense of balance. “It is not difficult to walk on a tightrope,” he said “But you need to have passion, and you have to work madly, to practice all day long. Within one year, I taught myself to do all the things you could do on a wire. I learned the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair on the wire, jumping through hoops. But I thought, What is the big deal here? It looks almost ugly. So I started to discard those tricks and to reinvent my art.”

Because no circus would hire Petit, who demanded to be allowed to perform in his own style, he became a street juggler. He developed a character (non-verbal, black-clad, intensely concentrated) and a brief performance that included some magic, some juggling, and much subtle and humorous interaction with the spectators; it usually ended with a few minutes on a length of rope strung between improvised supports. He would perform three or four times a day, creating his own stage by drawing a circle in white chalk on some chosen spot and, in spite of more than five hundred arrests (by his own count), he never went hungry.

One day, years before it was executed, he had a dental emergency and saw a photo of the Twin Towers (pre-construction) in a newspaper in the waiting room. It was then that his dream was born.

My story is a fairy tale. Here I am, young, 17-years-old, with a bad tooth in one of those un-colourful waiting room of a French dentist.…and, suddenly, I freeze because I have opened a newspaper at a page and I see something magnificent, something that inspire me. I see two towers and the article says one day those towers will be built. They’re not even there yet. And when they are, they will become the highest in the world. Now, I need to have that, this little tangible start of my dream, but everybody’s watching, but I need that page. And so what I do is under the cover of sneeze, I tear a page, put it under my jacket, and go out. Now, of course I would have a toothache for a week. But what’s the pain in comparison that now I have acquired my dream?

He spent the following years refining his wire walking skills and making countless visits to the towers to plot how to surreptitiously enter the buildings and solve the complicated logistics of rigging his wire between the swaying towers.

Petit, a street artist who lives off contributions from spectators at his frequent pantomime and acrobatic acts, said he had made more than 200 trips to the Trade Center buildings over the months prior, to plot the feat.

Three days previous to his walk, he and four others, masquerading as construction workers wearing hard hats, began taking their cable, rope, guy lines and other equipment to the uppermost floors of the still unfinished North Tower.

According to one friend, they loaded their material unimpeded on a freight elevator, stored it just shy of the roof and moved unchallenged through the buildings. Two accomplices then stationed themselves on the roof of the South Tower.

Late the night before his act, they set up shop on the north tower roof. With a five foot crossbow, they shot an arrow carrying a hemp cord across to the southtower. They passed heavier lines until they were able to lay a galvanized steel cable across the gap.

Once the main cable was strung, the men laid guy lines from the cable to the roof to minimize swaying. At one end the cable was wound around a steel stanchion on the roof. At the other, a winch was set up to regulate the tension.

Mr. Petit said he had hesitated about taking the initial steps because there was a stiff breeze. But as soon as he was on his way, he added, “I couldn’t help laughing—it was so beautiful.”

Not long past dawn, Mr. Petit was ready to walk. And walk he did, to the amazement and cheers of office workers, construction men and police officers alike.

“After the first crossing I look at the people and that was fantastic,” Mr. Petit said. “New York wake up and what did they discover? There was a high walker on the twin towers. I was not scared because it was a precise thing. I was dying of happiness.”

He was finally brought in by a policeman who shouted, “Get off there or I’ll come out and we’ll both go down.”

As he was led away, street level spectators booed the police while construction workers tried to shake Mr. Petit’s handcuffed hand. He was taken first to Beekman Downtown Hospital, where he was examined and given breakfast.

Later, he was booked at the Ericsson Place station house and kept in the Men’s House of Detention for several hours, before arraignment.

At a news conference in the Criminal Court Building, Mr. Kuh announced the impending dismissal of charges and suggested that security by the Port Authority, which runs the World Trade Center, was not as “keen” as it should be.

Mr. Petit happily signed an autograph for a policeman, inscribing his name alongside drawing of the two towers.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 07: Philippe Petit (center) answers reporter's questions as he is escorted from Beekman Hospital by Port Authority police officer. Petit was arrested after he walked a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center. (Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 07: Philippe Petit (center) answers reporter’s questions as he is escorted from Beekman Hospital by Port Authority police officer. Petit was arrested after he walked a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center. (Photo by Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

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Petit’s public stunts became more legal as time went on, particularly after the his walk across the Twin Towers made him a household name. He did, however, get arrested once again in New York City years later in 1980, after he set up a walk over St. John the Divine, the Gothic cathedral in Morningside Heights. After he was arrested for trespassing, Dean James Parks Morton, the Dean of the cathedral, vouched for Petit. “He wasn’t trespassing. He is an artist of this cathedral,” Morton reportedly told the police. Petit has been an artist-in-residence at the cathedral since then.

Petit’s desire to execute elaborate stunts doesn’t seem to have diminished. Petit’s manager and partner, Kathy O’Donnell, put it in a recent interview if Petit tried anything like his 1974 stunt today, “It wouldn’t be like then. Let’s wait for the guy for 45 minutes to come in off his wire. It would be bye bye!”

“From the middle of the wire, I saw the beauty, the void, the amazing line of the perspective that brings you down a quarter of a mile,” Petit, now 66, has said of the heart-stopping view below. “I was not afraid, and I was happy to look at it, and I photographed it in my head.”

It was on the original WTC walk that Petit had one of his more unpleasant moments on the wire.

“The wire was one of the worst wires,” he says. “I had all kind of problems with the rigging the night before. So, yes, I had one of those…I would not call them moments of doubt. But I would say the appearance of a question mark. But I am very good at turning a question mark into an exclamation point. I will shape the curve! Because basically I will never set myself on a wire and do that first step if I am not sure that my last step will be successful.

“One thing that people really do not understand is…‘He risks his life!’ I am the opposite of that. I will never risk my life…Sometimes, yes, there are moments but usually it’s a quarter of a second, it’s not a minute. Maybe I had a little absence of focus for a quarter of a second. Or maybe something happened. A thought came into my brain, and I didn’t repel it instantly on the wire.”

What kind of a thought?

“My focus on the wire is the result of a lifetime of training. And at the beginning I decided to put on blinders. Because the only thing important is the wire. That was a mistake. That focus is dangerous. Because when you are on the wire, the universe that is around can be aggressive and actually deadly. So then I started creating a focus which now I would describe as: I only focus on the wire while I completely listen to my surroundings.

Petit says that somebody once told him they understood his reliance on his eyesight, his sense of touch, even his sense of smell. But his sense of taste? What was there to taste up there?

“I said ‘Aha! You are mistaken.’ I actually sometimes …if you look at a video of me walking sometimes I do this weird…”

He mimes an open-mouthed chew.

“I open my mouth wide! To what? To breathe more oxygen? Maybe. But to chew! To feel–is there humidity in the air? Oh, yes! There’s thunder maybe coming. And one day, taste saved my life because I was in the middle of a big crossing. There were grey clouds. But my eyes could see the grey become black clouds, which was not good. I could taste on my tongue and smell too and I thought, shit! A biblical rain is going to fall. I have to get my arse on the other side. It was about a hundred yards and I went quite fast. And the second I arrived and did my last step, there was thunder and rain pouring. If I had been a hundred yards away on the wire I would not be here to tell the story.”

And Off he goes... Philippe Petit carried a 26-foot pole to help him keep his balance. Credit: AP

And Off he goes… Philippe Petit carried a 26-foot pole to help him keep his balance. Credit: AP

Here, Philippe Petit prepares to cross a wire 1,3500 foot above the ground between the roofs of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on Aug. 7, 1974.

Here, Philippe Petit prepares to cross a wire 1,3500 foot above the ground between the roofs of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on Aug. 7, 1974.

Petit’s rapturous act remains an indelible snapshot in itself: Fourteen years after the Twin Towers were destroyed, the sight of a Lilliputian wire-walker – dwarfed by the colossal force of two looming structures that taunted and tested him – is an emotional vision to those seeking to remember the towers in all their exultant beauty. He may not have realized it then, but four decades after he took his first step on that wire, Petit’s astonishing feat has become both solemn homage and poignant epitaph to the towers’ memory.

“I am a very positive man in life, I like to create, I like to build. So when I look at that footprint, as they call it, I immediately rebuild in my mind the two towers exactly com’eradov’era, say the Italians – as it was, where it was,” notes Petit.

Petit says the towers were forever transformed after he scaled them.

“It is true that the towers before my walk were not liked, generally speaking, by New York. They thought it was two, I don’t know, like, file cabinets. It was unhuman, inhuman,” he says.

“After my walk, everybody in New York – the intelligentsia, the artists, the politicians, the inhabitants – everybody agreed that the towers were now liked by them because I had rendered them human,” he explains. “They said that, not me, and it was the greatest homage to what I had done.”

Just because Petit has put his more extreme stunts behind him doesn’t mean the acrobat has stopped entertaining. Petit still practices walking the wire for hours every day, and has vowed to perform until his body is no longer able.

“Stuntman, Eluding Guards, Walks a Tightrope Between Trade Center Towers”

Philippe Petit – Artist – Biography.com

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The High-Level Scheming Behind Philippe Petit’s Twin Towers … – Time

‘The Walk’ Replays Philippe Petit’s High-Wire Act — but Was It Art …

The Man Who Walks on Air – The New Yorker

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The Real Story Behind Philippe Petit’s High-Wire Act in ‘The Walk …

Philippe Petit on Training Joseph Gordon-Levitt for ‘The Walk’ | Collider


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