Look closely at the sky;
see how far the clouds are.
One foot on the tower, another on the steel wire.
Then, the long, 40-minute crossing.
Two towers, 50 meters apart, 400 meters high.
On the following day, the television channels would broadcast the resignation speech of the President of the United States of America. America had lost its innocence with Watergate, but it was momentarily restored early morning, Wednesday, August 7, 1974, downtown Manhattan, by a young French funambulist dressed in black. Accomplished with absolute detachment, even from life itself, the crossing between the Twin Towers was an unconditional gift – to New York and to the world. Before entering the helicopter which would take him to the White House, Nixon said to the journalists: “I wish I had the publicity that French man had”.
On the eve of the crossing, a group of men had gone up to the top of the World Trade Center (WTC), yet to be concluded. They stretched a steel wire and on it, Philippe Petit walked slowly and rhythmically. A misstep of a millimeter or the lack of attention for one second would have only one result, inescapable, fatal. He closed in on the border tower, turned back around to the emptiness and lied down high above. He walked back and forth eight times. Half-way through the course, it started to drizzle. A seagull approached him and circled him several times, astonished by his presence there, among the clouds and powerful winds, winds which blew with such strength that made the towers vibrate.
The operation, prepared for nearly six years, gave life to one of the most beautiful artistic gestures of the XX century. The crossing of the WTC is a particularly inspiring act, for it represents full commitment to a purpose: to cover the distance which separated the Twin Towers with only the help of a steel wire, a pole and the most decisive factor of all, an ego bigger than all of New York. Years later, Petit stated in an interview that nothing special had motivated him to do it: “probably the most beautiful part of the event is that there was no why”. Upon arriving at the other side, after walking through the abyss, he had deceived the impossible, surpassing the frontier of the permissible odds. For 40 minutes, he crossed the thin line which separates supreme rationality, indispensable to do what he did, from complete insanity, which many perceive as courage.
One foot on the tower, another on the steel wire.
Distance from the ground: 400 meters.
Given this outcome and everything Petit would do afterwards, his life trajectory is predictable, fully complying with the conventions of transgression which led him to delude the safety of the WTC and walk between the towers and to, once detained and handcuffed, grab a policeman’s hat, smiling happily, making it spin on his face, delighting the reporters. “Immense happiness!” were the first words he addressed to the journalists who surrounded him, in the euphoria of triumph. The crowd booed the police, which led him handcuffed.
Philippe Petit was born in Nemours, Seine-et-Marne, on the outskirts of Paris, on August 13, 1949. With an older sister and a younger brother, he was the middle child of a typical middle-class French family. As his public persona, he presents himself as an autodidact polymath whose multiplicity of interests soon led him to disobey all rules. In his official biographies, he repeats as a mantra that, by the time he turned 18, he had been expelled from five schools and that, throughout his career as a street artist, he had been detained over 500 times, in various parts of the world. With immeasurable immodesty, he defines himself as a “boy of the Renaissance”, a “wandering troubadour”, a “professional dreamer”, a “poet of the sky” who “cultivates intellectual defiance”. Although he says he grew up in an oppressive family environment (a point confirmed by his youth companion, Annie Allix), he portrays his father as a fearless adventurer. A writer and poet, linguist and translator, art critic, historian, sportsman and air force pilot, hero awarded with the Croix de Guerre for his achievements during the II World War, captured in 1940 by the Germans, author of a very popular book on the world history of aviation, coronel Edmond Petit (1914-2000), according to his son, instilled in him the appreciation for a job well done and for the consequent and fruitful inventiveness, embodied in real, visible results. Such as the one that Edmond, while detained by the Germans, put into practice with his war mates, to successfully escape from Nazi captivity at Oflag XVII-A, a camp on the outskirts of Vienna (or of northern Germany, as Philippe says?). The son proudly describes the audacious maneuver his father and more than one hundred men used in 1943 to escape to freedom, documented by images of that time, gathered in a 2012 documentary entitled, Sous le Manteau, which had already given inspiration to the film The Great Escape, from 1963. However, approximately one month following his escape, Edmond was recaptured by the Nazis, in Hungary, and was finally freed by the Allies and awarded with the Medal of Resistance and with the Legion of Honor. He naturally dreamed that his son would one day follow a military career, which obviously could never happen. Even so, in the performance made in Sydney, Philippe would pay tribute to his father by resorting to the ingenious technique he had used to escape from the Nazis. And, in a recent interview to The New York Times, he mentioned: “my parents weren’t bad parents. They simply did not understand that I wished to be a wandering minstrel, half-man, half-bird”. The mother, Jeanine, said, with some pride, that his son was “insolent and an individualist” but he was so because of his supreme need to étonner les gens. Even so, she admitted: “he wasn’t a model son”.
When he was a child, his sister used to take him to the Meudon Florest, outside Paris, where they would go for long walks on Sunday mornings, oriented by their father. On the way, they would find obstacles or places to exercise, which had been placed there through the application of the popular Méthode Hébert, created by the famous physical education professor Georges Hébert. On vacation, as an adolescent, at the Jura mountains, the young man, who enjoyed solitude and had no friends (“my age were all so dumb”), spent endless hours skipping from stone to stone. At four years of age, Philippe already climbed everything that appeared before him. At the age of six, he announced that, when he became an adult, he would be a theatre director. He started to learn magic on his own, rehearsing in front of a mirror. At the age of nine, he wanted to be a ventriloquist. At that time, he learned how to make knots, an art to which he would later dedicate an entire book: in Why Knot?, of 2013, with his usual panache, he states that he perfectly dominates the technique of tying ropes and strings, to the point of being able to make 200 of the known 4000 types of knots.
In his youth, he learned drawing, painting, sculpture, printing, carpentry, theatre, horseback riding and fencing. Similarly to Steve Jobs, he learned with passion the art of typography and the knowledge of various types of characters. At 13 years of age, he spent every Thursday at the Imprimeries de la Drôme, working as an apprentice. Later, he would spend long hours in Montmartre, watching the training of the artists from the Cirque d’Hiver, the Medrano Circus and the vaudeville theatre. At 16 years of age, in addition to climbing, he began juggling and funambulism. His brother, Alain, had seen an act of the Diables Blancs, Rudolf Omankowsky’s Company, and had become fascinated. At the beginning, as usual, Philippe undervalued what his younger brother told him, but started practicing walking on rope for several hours at a time. A little while afterwards, at the age of 17, he was emancipated by his parents, after a school career in which he excelled in spending the entire classes practicing card tricks under his desk and by steeling purses and other objects from the teachers’ pockets. That attraction continued: in 2006, he published a book entitled L’Art du Pickpocket, in which he highlights his admiration for theft and, in his own words, for “the discrete and wonderful choreography” that surrounds it, especially at the most difficult moment, the one when you discretely return the stolen item to the victim, replace the purse in the pocket or the watch in the person’s wrist. Again, as always, the passion for the game and for the scheme, a playful vision of reality, the cult of détournement, so dear to movements such as the Situationists, who attained spectacular notoriety at the time Petit held his most famous performances in Paris and in Sydney, but especially in New York.
Expelled from high school, emancipated, alone in the world, Petit wrote, played chess, studied architecture and engineering, learned Russian. At the age of 17, he became interested in bullfighting and joined a group of boys who initiated in the secrets of bullfighting in the South of France and in Spain. According to Petit, one of the ways to walk on the wire is typical of the matadors, who defy danger in the arena, with arrogant disregard for life itself. Petit calls it marche de torero. As he wrote in Creativity. The Perfect Crime – a book from 2014, with didactic pretensions, which mirrors, as no other, the excessiveness of his ego – no one understands better the artist-space relation than bullfighters. Petit, who once got to be mozo de espadas of a young bullfighter, was more interested in the dance of the capes than in the moment of truth, embodied in the animal’s death. He affirms that this learning of bullfighting made him understand the importance of the “territorial winds”, which would prove to be precious when he embraced the destiny of high-altitude funambulist. As he one day wrote, “nothing or nobody is stronger than the wind”.
The value of the New York crossing – or, before it, of the Notre Dame Cathedral crossing, in June 1971, or the Sydney Harbour Bridge crossing, in 1973 – is derived, in great part, from the fact that it is an illicit, transgressive act. If, by any chance, Petit had obtained official permission for those crossings, the gesture would have lost great part of its significance or reach. Following the WTC crossing, all or almost all of his performances would lose spontaneity and the spell of surprise, for they would be announced beforehand or even hired by official entities. In 1984, for example, he crossed the Chaillot, in Paris, in a performance commissioned by the Minister of Culture. In 1989, through a negotiating process in which Mikhail Baryshnikov acted as intermediary, he was authorized by the maire of Paris, Jacques Chirac, to cross the arch of the Eiffel Tower during the celebrations of the Revolution bicentennial. In Germany, in 1994, he crossed the skies between the Frankfurt Cathedral and Paulskirche, on the celebration of the city’s 1200 years. According to him, it was on that occasion that he felt the winds’ overwhelming force the most. His mates tried, over and over, to discourage him from climbing that wire, given the high speed of the wind gusts. Petit accepted postponing the crossing for some minutes, but said that he couldn’t disappoint the half million people who awaited his performance. Before that, in 1987, he did a quick crossing in the Grand Central Terminal lobby, in New York, between the arrival and the departure of two trains.
Petit jubilates with the vastness of his audiences, with the thousands of spectators who applaud him, becoming intoxicated with fame and recognition. He states that 500 thousand people admired him during his crossing in Frankfurt and that 80 thousand witnessed his performance in Jerusalem, at the 1987 Israel Festival, when he symbolically joined the Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. He mentions that 250 thousand people clustered at the Trocadéro, in 1989, to watch him walk on the Eiffel Tower, and clearly exaggerates when he mentions that 100 thousand people followed his crossing at the WTC on the streets of Manhattan (“Under my influence, the ants could no longer escape, they slowed down and stopped, watching me as in an act of submission”). The official performances, publicly pre-announced, counted on thousands of spectators, but did not have the aura of the early days nor exhaled the scent of refusal of the forbidden. It was that tension between fame and deviation which Petit had to skillfully manage, similarly to the tension of the wires he uses, perhaps not very successfully. His megalomania is only satisfied by the applause of the crowds, to the point of stating that one of the reasons which led him to leave his native country and move to America was the fact that the French newspapers, unlike their peers throughout the world, gave little emphasis to his Notre Dame crossing.
The funambulist was thus divided between the desire of transgression and the vanity of glory, two realities which became no longer reconcilable from the moment when he became world famous (as, in fact, had always been his ambition). Although he continued making some illegal performances, they did not have any consequences; on the contrary, the subversion became profitable: for example, after illegally crossing the St. John the Divine nave, in New York, in a date full of symbolism (Ascension Day), he was immediately invited to come to the outside of the church and the people in charge inclusively granted him a space where he could train the public performance he held there in 1982. In 1986, on Bastille Day, he would open the French Festival in New York, with a performance at the Lincoln Center, designed to celebrate the reopening of the Statue of Liberty, a very clear indication of his absorption by the mainstream. His career includes presentations in several places, from Russia to Japan, including the United States of America, Europe and Australia. He performed on the 90th anniversary of Picasso, in 1971, and later at the Paris Opera, at the opening of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, at the Pompidou Centre, at the New York Natural History Museum and in many places of the city which rendered him famous. To be highlighted, on his behalf, that Petit aimed for glory but refused the considerable advertising offers which he received following the WTC epic, minutes after a television host interrupted the broadcast to announce: “An unbelievable story has just arrived – I don’t believe it”. On the following days, he was contacted by agents of the Arrow shirts brand, by an event promoter who wanted him to walk on a wire stretched between two blimps, over the Grand Canyon. The Burger King chain offered him 100 thousand dollars if he would make a crossing at the inauguration party of a new restaurant on 8th Avenue, dressed as a Whooper hamburger (!). In turn, MGM advanced with a millionaire proposal for the making of a movie, which Petit refused. At Village Vanguard, Bob Dylan sang a song in his honor, “Don’t Fall!”, and Johnny Carson called him, inviting him to appear on his television show: the funambulist, who didn’t watch television, didn’t even know who Johnny Carson was… These invitations in general made him furious, for they showed that his gesture had not been understood in its artistic purity, expressed in complete abnegation. Even so, Petit sat at negotiation tables several times. The reason was simple: since he was French, they invited him for lunch or dinner at luxury restaurants, the most refined in New York, opportunities which Petit would never waste. He did, however, accept a different invitation, which filled him with pride: the New York Port Authority asked him to explain to the safety department how he managed to break into the WTC, and Petit gave several tips to increase the towers’ protection. Another detail which he certainly also appreciated: his mailbox was filled with love letters, commercial proposals and fan mail sent by thousands of people. Since he refused to become a millionaire, Petit faced financial problems even after his WTC performance. Whenever he needed money, he returned to the streets and to his performances as a juggler, in front of audiences which doubled in size; when even these weren’t sufficient, he worked in construction, in Brooklyn. His fame was such that a young man even appropriated his name, to cross the dome of a large Parisian warehouse as “Philippe Petit”. It wasn’t a unique case: many usurped the name of the mythical Charles Blondin (1824-1897), and at the time, there was a profusion of “Blondinis”, an Australian Blondin, a female Blondin, Petit Blondin, etc. Philippe faced it all with arrogance and contempt and never authorized the displaying of billboards or advertisements. In fact, many of his performances were made for charity purposes, namely in favor of associations of children victims of illness or mistreatment, as his crossing in Namur, Belgium, in 1992, or in Saillon, Switzerland, in the same year, and also in New York, in 1996 and in 2002.
Petit passed from artistic crimes to official acts and ceremonies, in a transition which was, in the very least, as risky as the WTC crossing. Even so, that option did not imply a rupture with the lineage of funambulism, which always included performances designed to serve power and his ostentatious exhibitions. The Froissart chronicles describe the presence of a Genovian funambulist in the show held when Isabel of Baviera came to Paris, in June 1389. Upon watching the performance, some peasants who came from the province thought that the distant funambulist was an angel from Paradise to salute the new queen, or a meteor, as a premonition of great events. Also, during the procession which toured London at the time of Edward VI’s coronation, in 1546, a foreign funambulist from Aragon crossed a rope hung on Saint Paul’s Cathedral, descending to the ground to kiss the feet of the future monarch. Shortly after, in 1554, during the festivities and celebrations of the arrival of Filipe II of Spain in London, another funambulist also performed in the Saint Paul Cathedral. In Venice, it was a custom for the funambulists to perform once a year, on Saint Marcus Day, for the Doge, the Senate and the foreign ambassadors. On the Histoire de Charles VII, published in 1661, Mathieu de Coucy refers that the duke of Milan greeted the French ambassadors by offering them a show of funambulism, presented by a Portuguese funambulist, who walked back and forth in a 45 meter-high wire. In addition, he kneeled and greeted the public, sat down and danced on the wire, causing panic screams from the ladies in the audience.
Funambulism has always oscillated between the subversive impulse and the ambition of the sublime and Petit found, as so few others, a perfect balance between those two poles, so often divergent. His performances include profound joy but not easy humor, very common in these arts. The satire to the authorities was implicitly embedded solely in the crossing gesture of its own and was not proclaimed openly or through propaganda. Contrarily to what was common at the time, Petit did not transform his performances into protesting happenings, nor took advantage of the public’s presence to rally or to appeal to causes or ideologies. He thus succeeded in a wiser exploration and preservation of the mysteries and the mystical aura which always involved funambulism. For some – like Steve Connor, in a remarkable essay on the matter –, the thrill the funambulists bring out in their audiences has an ancient lineage, arising from the fact that they are frequently associated with other practices, such as acrobatics, juggling and the magical arts. In fact, there is a common trace among all of them. On one hand, they are viewed as grotesque extravagancies, specific of charlatans and outlaws, staged in environments favorable to crime, to religious iconoclasm and even promiscuity (to be recalled a movie made by Edison in 1901, showing the striptease of Laverie Vallee, a young trapeze star). Even the theatre, one of the less conventional arts, rejected the socializing and even the proximity with funambulists and acrobats, demanding that they performed in places distant from the theatres. But, on the other hand, alongside transgressive delinquency, walking on rope also arouses, somewhat paradoxically, feelings of spiritual gravitas and impulses, due to its image and scenic affinities with the Christian iconography: the heavenly territory, the angels and the cherubim, the Ascension and the Transfiguration.
In ancient times, but also in the present days, the fascination and the appealing power exerted by funambulists are largely due to the fact that they covertly invoke transcendence. In the past, the audiences believed that their balance ability was only possible due to the miraculous and enigmatic intervention of arcana or supreme entities. Hence why the Church formally condemned the practice of funambulism in several councils. However, even those who unauthorized it, such as João Crisóstomo, recognized in it motive of admiration, a fact which allowed Tertuliano and other Church Priests to make use of funambulism in the construction for a pious and devout life. The Masonic and Rosicrucian teachings also took advantage of funambulism and its symbolic and imagistic potential. Published in 1877, Ísis sem Véu, the first book of Mme. Blavatsky, the charismatic founder of the theosophical movement, begins precisely with a metaphoric allusion to funambulism. It is, however, in Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883), by Nietzsche, that metaphoric allusion is present in a denser and more powerful form:
“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Super-human – a rope over an abyss.”
“It is danger to cross the abyss – it is dangerous to go down this path – it is dangerous to look behind – it is dangerous to have a dizzy spell and suddenly stop!”
The idea that there is a gift or a supernatural grace which allows to do that is reinforced in the case of high-altitude crossings, where, in case of failure, the chance for survival is null, inexistent. Petit didn’t choose the Twin Towers only because they were the tallest buildings in the world, taking over the WTC’s glory and prominence. Petit chose them because a fall at that height would be fatal, in all meanings of the term. No one can survive a 400 meter fall. As evident, this inescapable information densifies the mythology surrounding the funambulist’s feat. On the one hand, it allows the recalling of other mythologies, such as the angels’ fall or the flight of Icarus. On the other, it enhances the sacrificial and virtuous dimension of his work, which Genet highlighted in Funambule, the essay he dedicated in 1958 to his lover, the Algerian funambulist Abdallah Bentaga: “Death – the Death I am telling you about – isn’t the one following your fall, but the one which precedes your apparition on the wire. You die before climbing it. The one who dances will be dead – determined to all beauties, capable of them all”. Death which precedes the fall – or, better yet, which precedes the coming on stage – cannot, however, obscure the other, more real death that the funambulist must always have on this horizon of possibilities: “you should risk a definite physical death. The dramaturgy of the Circus demands it. It is one of the rare cruel games which coexist with poetry, war, the bullfight. Danger has its reason for being: it will force your muscles to achieve a perfect rigor – because the smallest error is the cause of your fall, with your illnesses or death – and this rigor will be the beauty of your dance”.
There may be a reason to abandon clandestine crossings. And perhaps that reason is more profound than the avidity for ephemeral fame and the eagerness for the audience’s applauses. In a rare self-critical moment, Petit confesses, in his most recent book, Creativity, that his stubborn search for perfection has led him to become arrogant and excessively proud, shackled by an aggressive determination, devoured by envy and by a desire of secrecy which bordered paranoia. In his tiny Paris apartment, he dug tiny holes where he placed the highly confidential preparatory material of his numerous projects. Presently, he still writes hieroglyphs which meaning is known only to himself, associating images to tasks to be accomplished (for example, the drawing of a car, on the calendar, means that he must take his car to the garage on a Wednesday; a tooth on a Monday implies a dentist’s appointment on that day; two lines similar to a lightning bolt show that he had a terrible discussion with a friend...).
Possibly, upon embarking on the paths of the formalization and awesomeness of masses, Petit tried to correct his obsession for secrets and conspiracies, which led him to become suspicious of everything and everyone and see enemies and traitors everywhere. In sum, he tried, although it is not known if he succeeded, to abandon the narcissistic solitude he had experienced while crossing the towers and lying down on the steel wire, contemplating the Manhattan seagulls which hovered around him, but mostly, admiring the greatness of himself. Tremendously egocentric, only trusting himself, he wrote one day, probably righteously: “so that I may offer a totally honest performance, I must be completely alone”.
Petit is a resident artist at St. John the Divine, since 1980. It is convenient to remember that, back then, he had been forgotten to such a point that the manuscript of his first book was rejected by no less than 18 editors. Now, in more recent times, the documentary Man on Wire received on Oscar and Zemeckis directed a movie on the hero of the Twin Towers.
Although he says he is agnostic (“I don’t believe in anything, only the useless delights me”), he spares no compliments to reverend James Parks Morton, dean of St. John the Divine, whom he calls “my spiritual father”. At the beginning of 1996, he participated with his art in a farewell ceremony for reverend Morton, who called him to St. John the Divine after Philippe had illegally crossed the nave of the world’s largest gothic cathedral. Morton, known by his charisma and unorthodoxy, told the authorities that Petit hadn’t committed any illegal act in the church and, little afterwards, as mentioned above, invited the funambulist to fix his place of work at St. John the Divine. “Philippe does not believe in God, but God believes in Philippe”, said the reverend. In Creativity, Petit dedicates a chapter to faith, stating that he has, above all, faith in himself… He adds that it was that faith which gave him strength to be able to save himself and his daughter in a shipwreck in the Brittany seas. In second place, he says that he has faith in “outer strengths and forces”, remembering the evoking of the “gods” who accompanied him in the WTC crossing. It is in this view that he considers that certain objects have their own “life”, as happens with the baton of an especially gifted maestro or, according to him, the pole of an exceptional funambulist. It is also in this view that he says he believes that the shadow of a person carries a part of the person – and so, whenever he can, he avoids stepping on it. Lastly, he confesses to “believe in the unbelievable”, and thus falls in love with myths and legends, ancient mysteries or enigmatic objects, giving the example of the moai the Rapa Nui edified on Easter Island. As most artists, he has some superstitions: before climbing on the wire for a large crossing, he fondles a wooden lion, the charm he does not dispense.
In the midst of this New Age pantheism, something essential was lost in Petit’s trajectory, especially when he abandoned the clandestine and surprising crossings. In the performances prepared in secret, two dangers walked hand-in-hand: the risk of being found out before the performance and the risk of the crossing itself. On the Sydney Bridge, in 1973, he had to hurriedly walk on the wire, for when he started, he could already hear the sirens of the police cars on his trail. Even worse, without contemplations, the Australian police cut one of the support cables and Philippe nearly fell mortally into the emptiness. On the WTC crossing, the policemen warned him, screaming, that a helicopter was about to rescue him by force. But, while he was on top of the wire, he was totally invulnerable: no one would dare to place one foot on the tower and another on the steel wire. “How do you stop a funambulist?” he asks with disdain. One of the pictures from that morning shows the defeated policemen, waiting for the performance to end. There are also images from the time of the Notre Dame crossing showing him lying down on the wire, up high, while the police waited for the end of the performance. At those times, Petit threw his subversive omnipotence at the authorities. He would turn around, return to the abyss, lie down on the wire and juggle. Strictly speaking, in doing so, he did not risk any life other than his own, if we except the unlikely chance that his falling body would strike an unaware passer-by, as happened in the September 11 attacks, when a young fireman from the crew of the 216 Fire engine, whom the colleagues called Captain America, was struck by a falling woman, dying instantly.
As strange as it may seem to the common mortal, in Petit’s perspective, the risk of being caught before the performance was bigger, and more serious, than the danger of crossing the abyss between the two towers. For him, walking on a wire 400 meters high was immeasurably less dangerous than making an error which would take him to prison or force him to give up on his plan. At a certain time, after being approached by a security guard at the top of the North Tower, when everything pointed to failure, Petit actually pondered alternatives: the Rockefeller Center, Central Park, Washington Bridge. He refused. There was nothing like the Twin Towers. Those were “his towers”, as he felt as soon as he saw them for the first time.
To reach them in the manner he wished, walking between them, he oppressed all those surrounding him, including himself. The reason is simple: the need for control and the will for dominance, both born from an obsession to control situations and people through tricks, lies and dissimulation, if necessary. Petit commits himself, body and soul, to render his fixations true and demands that everyone who is close to him assume that same attitude and share his insane perfectionism. When preparing his performances, he checks countless times if everything is correct, down to the tiniest detail (he once defined himself as a “madman of details”, stating that “details save my life”). On funambulism, hundreds of meters above the ground, without a net or protection, an art in which many already lost their lives, there is no place for error and “semi perfection” is not allowed. Everything is absolute. The WTC funambulist is merciless every time he is informed that a trade colleague suffered a fatal fall: “he got what he deserved”, he replies. He rejects the idea that success depends on luck and insists that success is achieved through continuous exercise, infinite repetition of the same gestures, which Omankowsky called la prax. Even so, one of the many legends surrounding him assures that Petit does not train regularly and may even spend months at a time without climbing the wire.
As Paul Auster well observed, in the introduction he wrote in 1997 for Petit’s book Traité du funambulisme, his friend does not wish to elude death; on the contrary, he faces it head-on, face to face. A special resourcefulness is necessary to do so. When the wire trembles up high, you must repress the natural tendency to press your feet hard, which would be fatal; instead, you should proceed with fluidity and increased smoothness, dominating panic and the temptation to escape, plunging into the abyss (significantly, before the crossing, Philippe said: “if I die, it will be a beautiful death”). In the preparation, you must extract the existing oil in the steel wire core, leaving it out in the open air for months or even years. You must know which foot is the balance foot, the one which gives better support for the moment of departure. You must calibrate the step and know how to adjust the feet, placing the wire between the correct toes. You must build a long, heavy pole, 8 meters long and weighing more than 25 kilos. During the crossing, you must follow the constant and imperceptible changes in the body’s gravity center, generally situated in the stomach area, which the pole helps lower. The wire is a treacherous friend, a serpent capable of biting fatally with three distinctive movements, all of them unpredictable: on one hand, balancing vertically, up and down; on the other, in swing, oscillating horizontally even when fastened by spies; and, lastly, the most dangerous movement of all, twisting and vibrating from its interior, from its soul. You must keep in mind all this exceptionally subtle, but potentially catastrophic dynamics. You must also see the final goal even before placing your first foot on the wire. You must first watch the whole distance, follow the wire with your eyes before starting to walk, with happy energy. At the top, up high, you get into new territory, a place where the funambulist is in the most complete solitude, even if some birds get close to him or if he hears the rumor of the distant city, divided between the wonder of the performance and the expectation of tragedy. You must know how to control the breathing movements. If necessary, stop for a few moments of rest and contemplation. Enjoy the generosity of surrender, for it is unrepeatable. A silence invaded by light, as Petit says. Most important than anything: you must avoid the temptation to let go of everything and plunge into the abyss. The crossing is a celebration of existence, not a suicidal act. At the end, or halfway through, salute the public, as the bullfighters do after a triumph in the arena.
On the Twin Towers crossing, Petit stopped for instants and, as Annie Allix remembers, saluted the incredulous crowd which gathered on the adjoining streets to the WTC. Even though he recognizes it impossible, the funambulist guarantees that he heard their voices, their distant noise, even when 400 meters away. People laughed, marveled. And if we remember that, years later, on that precise place, many people would look up high in tears and screams of pain, we will have a greater understanding of the unique beauty of Philippe Petit’s gift to New York and to the world. In a certain sense, the WTC crossing was a virtuous Watergate, the festive result of an innocent and benevolent conspiracy, crowned with success and joy. Given the enterprise's dimension and the scale in which it took place, it wasn't a small deed. Hours later, Nixon resigned.
The preparation for the crossing was such a reckless and insane enterprise as the heavenly walk itself, on August 7 1974.
On the winter of 1968, while at the dentist’s office waiting room, the funambulist had an epiphany when flipping through a newspaper which, in a rough drawing, showed the future “World Trade Center”, which 412 meters crushed the Eiffel Tower (320 meters) and the Montparnasse Tower (185 meters). He was 17 years old and had begun funambulism just a few months earlier, but already dreamed of walking on top of the building which, at the time, was the highest in the world. On the dentist’s waiting room, using a very common stratagem – which we also see in Chinatown, the movie by Polanski –, he simulated a loud sneeze and tore the newspaper page which showed the WTC drawing. He ran out of the office without being seen by the dentist; with an intense toothache but with an idée fixe hovering in his spirit.
The incidents of this adventure were narrated in the book and in the documentary Man on Wire. The act was endangered several times. While the official story, as told by Petit, mentions that the crossing took six years to plan, the truth of the facts is slightly different. The newspaper clipping was forgotten for a long time in Petit’s tiny apartment in Paris, at nº. 10 in rue Laplace. In the meantime, the funambulist focused on his performance at Notre Dame and only the printing of an article on Paris Match, in 1972, informing of the progress of the construction of the Twin Towers, alerted him to the need to act quickly. But before it, the crossing in Australia. Tired of the constant police chase of amateur performers and of Paris’ cold and hot extreme temperatures – which, according to him, greatly hindered his street work -, Petit abandoned France and settled down in New York in January of 1974. Only then did he go to the WTC. Outside the subway, he was crushed by the vision of a monolith of biblical proportions, but not even that kept him from wanting to climb it. Eluding the security guard at the entry, he clandestinely ascended to the top of the North twin, which took him one hour. On the following day, he returned with the American photographer Jim Moore, whom he found by chance in his first performance in New York, in front of the city’s public library. Once up there, in those majestic heights, the conclusion was decisive: “Impossible! Impossible! Impossible!” To defy the impossible, he had to start working as quickly as possible. The act was therefore designed and prepared in a few months, between January and August of 1974, at a frenetic pace, with several journeys between Paris and New York.
Philippe went as far as going from Paris to Frankfurt on foot and by hitchhiking to ask for financial support from the one he defines as “my best friend”, the “greatest acrobat of all times”: Francis Brunn, from Circus Sarrasani. The latter immediately accepted to help him. However, Brunn’s wife was so convinced that Petit would die that she frenetically telephoned the American authorities on the eve of the performance, asking them to stop the imminent suicidal. By chance, she did not manage to contact anybody: neither the New York police, nor the Port Authority or WTC security.
When preparing the performance, Philippe entered into the WTC clandestinely about 200 times. He blended in with the construction workers, disguised himself as an employee of a transportation company, passed as a carpenter, as an electrician or as an errand boy. It was then that his characteristics of a manipulator, of a pickpocket who dominates others, emerged once again: Petit revels in narrating the multiple ways he used to get in and out of one of the world’s most protected buildings, deceiving everything and everyone. For him, it was no novelty. One day, at school, with the sun shining, he screamed that it was snowing outside: the teacher and the whole class watched out the window while Philippe stole a pencil from a classmate. As unrealistic as it seems, he managed to elude the vigilance of a security guard at the WTC, at the top of the South Tower, through an ingenious pas de deux, similar to the one children use at hide-and-seek, placing himself behind his target and sneakily following him step by step. His pleasure in deceiving others and the fact of congratulating himself upon narrating the superiority of his craftiness are revealing of the dimension of his ego and of how high he thinks of himself. Without that good self-esteem, in enormous quantities, the crossing between the towers never would have been possible.
At a given time, he affirmed, with vainglory, that, for the WTC operation to be successful, his art should be comprised, in equal parts, of the rigor of an engineer and of the imagination of a poet. He observed exhaustively the entries and exits of the WTC workers, diligently studied the security structures and systems, filled notebooks with notes and sketches, made a mock-up of the crime site, got close to it in a rented helicopter (the pilot refused to descend to where Petit wanted, grazing the towers), forged false documents and went as far as disguising himself as a reporter of a French magazine of architecture to interview the people in charge of the building. He knew the towers so well that he even told one of them that they weren’t absolutely equal. His interlocutor, who also knew that the Twin Towers were false twins, was surprised to find that Petit knew one of the WTC’s best-hidden secrets. He trained in Vary, at his parents’ country house, with his mates balancing the wire, simulating the Manhattan winds. The tribe of accomplices varied, as some gave up and some joined in, among accusations, screams of fury and utterly violent fights. After a while, two groups were formed: on one side, the “French” (Philippe, Jean-Louis); on the other, the “Australians” (Mark Lewis and the student of architecture Paul Frame, who had already helped him in the Sydney crossing). “Give up!” Petit screams, after a tremendous discussion. The Australians returned to their country, certain that Philippe’s obstinacy would be fatal. The improvising was such that the group was joined by the employee of a shop in Times Square, where Petit and his great accomplice, Jean-Louis Blondeau, bought the walkie-talkies to communicate between the towers. Following a few minutes of conversation, followed by dinner, they defied him to join the group: Jean-Pierre Dousseau, “JP”, a Parisian expatriate in New York, would become one of the most decisive persons for the operation’s success. Two absolute unknowns – one, a rock musician; the other, a carpenter – found Jim Moore by chance and, upon exchanging a few circumstantial words in an elevator, were equally integrated into the group. Two days before the act, they both appeared anaesthetized by alcohol and drugs. One of them ended up quitting; the other was dispensed by Petit when they went up to the top of the South Tower for the last time. Jim Moore, his companion since the beginning, had already quit as well, firmly convinced that he would be charged with complicity in murder. The tension was enormous. At night, Philippe had nightmares, waking up soaked in sweat. After the Australians quit, the funambulist collapsed and crumbled into tears of rage. With great generosity, Jean-Louis took him and Annie out to dinner, to a Chinese restaurant, and afterwards, to a Bruce Lee movie. The performance was postponed 17 times, placing Philippe on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He even confided to Annie that he would do everything alone, without anyone’s help (years later, he said that he would advance with the project, “even if the whole world is against me”). In the meantime, on the streets, the garbage of New York was piling up, pestilent. The democrat mayor Abraham Beame faced the worst budget crisis in the city’s history, which, not much later, would be ravaged by crimes of the “Son of Sam” and, in 1977, by a blackout which would evoke a wave of unprecedented pillaging and robberies.
One of the possible explanations why Petit was able to walk between the Twin Towers may reside precisely here. Petit concentrated the tension and anxiety in the preparatory acts with such strength that afterwards, from the moment he placed his foot on the wire, everything seemed easy and safe to him. “On top of a rope, I was never afraid; I’m too busy for that”, he wrote one day. On the first moments, his face contracted into a sphinx, in search of full concentration. But, little by little, the more he advanced, the more his confidence grew. A mischievous smile appeared. He covered the distance with serenity, enjoying each moment de bravoure, with a lyrical placidity which hardly disguised his state of exaltation. “He was dying of joy”, published The New York Times on the following day. Immediately assigned to the roof of one of the towers, Sergeant Charles Daniels, from Port Authority Police, was astonished by the happiness stamped on the face of that 24 year old youngster while crossing the death path: “He had a complete lack of fear… I realized that I was witnessing something that no one else would ever see”.
Due to a last-minute setback, the crossing was not filmed, as was foreseen. There are some pictures of it, with emphasis to those captured by the photographer Jean-Louis Blondeau. It is frequent – as happens on the documentary Man on Wire, for them to be shown to the sound of Gymnopédies, by Satie. The combination is so perfect that we are tempted to ask ourselves if Erik Satie composed the music for a happening as that one, or if Petit choreographed the crossing to the Gymnopédie nº 1 score instead.
For the crossing to be successful – and the lack of success, in this case, was paid with life –, a wise combination of distinctive, even antagonistic qualities, was necessary, all administered in maximum dosages: on the one hand, the meticulous planning and the extreme rationality; on the other, the openness to improvising, the submission to delirium and to the power of intuition (remembering his childhood and his youth, the funambulist later wrote: “observation was my conduit of knowledge, intuition my source of power”). At that scale and dimension, risk is never entirely controllable, no matter how perfect the plans are or how large the anticipation of the errors and flaws is. Blondeau mentioned that the structure they set up on top of the WTC, on the eve of the performance, was more imperfect than all the others they had previously rehearsed. Years later, Petit also admitted that the steel cable wasn’t correctly installed. However, they hadn’t even thought of an alternative or of a plan B. Upon descending the ramp to the WTC parking lot, Philippe realized that he had arrived at a point of no-return, his own. They still had to transport a steel cable, weighing over 200 kilos, carrying it 180 degrees up. Hours later, as planned, an arrow was shot with a rope attached, from one tower to the other. The arrow failed the target, but miraculously rested on the building, a few meters lower. Petit descended to the spot, holding on to the construction structure, in an act of perfect madness. He grabbed the arrow and brought it to the intended place: the towers were connected. Then, the essential was lacking: to stretch the steel cable which, through bad luck, fell in the emptiness, almost dragging those who held it into the fall. Pulling the 200 kilos cable was a task which lasted hours. The security guards, during their night watch, came close to the place, which delayed the preparations further and increased anxiety. To elude the watchmen, they had to find a hideout and stand still, close to an abyss. For five hours, in full quietness. But they never thought of resorting to violence or of dominating the watch guards by force. By early morning, Philippe was exhausted when he finally put on his buffalo skin mocassins. By the time everything became ready, the light of dawn could be seen in the clear night. The first workers started to go up to the towers for another day’s work. Downstairs, on the street, a group of accomplices watched the sky, waiting for the artist to begin his performance, so they could communicate it to the press and to friends. Suddenly, something slowly floated down from up there. The accomplices screamed, stupefied, thinking it was Petit falling. But no, it was a dressing prop which had cut loose, flying in the wind. Everything was ready now. Minutes later, at 7h15 in the morning, Petit climbed onto the cable. At the decisive moment, one foot on the tower, one foot on the steel cable.
Even more – and this is a point which exponentially increased tension –, Philippe and his accomplices worked clandestinely, and there was a romantic and naïve madness in the troupe of youngsters who prepared the performance, very typical of those years, fertile in utopias. Nevertheless, the illegality of the action did not dispense the rigor and method. On the contrary, as he stated 40 years later, on the pages of Creativity, the outlaw (and added, “a creator must be an outlaw”), more than anyone else, is forced to act without failures, with thorough planning, following a foolproof method. Once on top of the wire, it isn’t possible to move forward by trial and error - trial and error is a vetoed method to all those who wish to get out of it alive.
Petit is relentlessly ferocious to those who betrayed him. He says to have forgiven them, but does not hide the hatred he still has for them. In his most famous book, To Reach the Clouds / Man on Wire, he changed the names of those who failed and covered their eyes on the photographs where they appear, to “confuse the Gods”.
In spite of it all, he was definitely able to listen to others’ opinions. And the discussions with Jean-Louis Blondeau, the only person he truly respected, were Homeric. They knew each other since the age of 16, from when they were both street performers in Paris: Jean-Louis sold his drawings and photographs to tourists; Philippe, with much more success, performed acrobatics within a circle of chalk painted on the floor. Blondeau was his great companion in the ascending to the Notre Dame towers. Even so, during the preparation for the Manhattan performance, Petit assumed himself as the uncontestable leader, lord and master of a group whom he dominated through his magnetism and wiles of manipulation. Annie Allix, his companion at the time, still speaks today with veneration and unveiled fascination of the adventure at the WTC, even though Philippe broke off their love affair a few days after crossing the towers. Immediately after the performance, he was detained for a few hours. For a spirit as Petit’s, the experience in prison was unbearable. It was in prison that he smoked a cigarette for the first time in his life (nowadays, he smokes Cohiba cigars). He was submitted to physical and psychiatric exams at Beekman Hospital, where they registered a pulse of 88 bpm and a blood pressure of 12/8. Afterwards, he was taken to court, along with his accomplice Jean-François Heckel and three black prostitutes, where the district attorney proposed to him the most appealing of sanctions: to perform a show for children in Central Park (“What a beautiful punishment!” he said at the time). Outside the hearing, he was approached by a young and very beautiful admirer. Philippe forgot Jean-François, leaving him behind, and ran away with Jackie, the blue-eyed brunette with whom he intimately celebrated his triumph. After a session of frenetic sex in a water mattress, he returned to his accomplices, who waited for him anxiously, without knowing what had happened to him. Annie hugged him in ecstasy: “My angel, you were superb!” The group celebrated the victory enthusiastically, with a limousine ride through the New York streets.
Annie, who had stood by him through all the moments of tormenting preparation for the performance, who had followed him with an almost religious devotion, as if Philippe was the leader of a sect to whom the faithful submit to death, is slightly mistreated by the funambulist in his memories of that journey. When writing about the preparation for the act, he referred to her as “the person who knew me better than anyone”, “who encouraged me and advised me”, “who was at my side when I discovered the rope”. Once the adventure was concluded, Philippe wrote: “Should I say the truth? I sent Annie back to France. I didn’t want anything to disturb the splendor of my fame and slow down the triumphant time of this new start of mine.” On the documentary Man on Wire, Annie remembers the first moments of their relationship and the rules which were established right there and then: “we became inseparable and, in his life, I completely forgot mine; he didn’t even care to know if I had my path. It was evident that I had to follow his path.” After the performance, she mentioned “a lot has changed in Philippe’s head”. Jean-Louis talks about a broken friendship. However, neither Annie nor Jean-Louis bears a grudge or hatred for the funambulist. In any case, the rupture with Blondeau is all the more strange because Petit had mentioned, at a time, that they both formed “a perfect team”. What may have happened between both, immediately after the historic feat, is something still unknown today. Philippe doesn’t say a word and Jean-Louis bursts into tears when recalling the feat.
In addition to Jean-Louis Blondeau and Annie Allix (and let’s not forget Jean-François Heckel and Jean-Pierre Dousseau), the funambulist had a precious accomplice. An elegantly-dressed character, with a dodgy appearance, full of mystery, with arched eyebrows and a long twisted moustache, similar to a character from the Old West. He spontaneously introduced himself to Philippe, saying that he had seen him perform on the previous year, on the streets of Paris. Barry Greenhouse, assistant manager of the New York insurance department (which in itself is ironic), worked on the 82nd floor of the South Tower and, thanks to him, much material was transported to the interior of the WTC. Greenhouse loaned Petit his access card, so that he could take it to a printer and make several false copies for the various members of the group. The funambulist was contacted by Dustin Hoffman, who, knowing of his street acrobatics, wished to hire him for a theatre show he was preparing at the time. Petit declined the invitation, but confided to the actor that he was planning on walking between the Twin Towers in the near future. Excited, he asked Petit to warn him before beginning the crossing and gave him his telephone number for that purpose. Dazzled by socializing with celebrities, Philippe betrayed the most elementary safety rules and his obsession for secrecy. In June of 1974, shortly before the act, he revealed, in an interview to the Daily News, that he was preparing a spectacular aerial crossing in New York, a fact which was reported on television. With his mates, Petit had created a community of secret – to use a concept imprinted by Sissela Bok in her book Secrets –, demanding the utmost loyalty from everyone. But his fascination with the famous and his eagerness for protagonism led him to childishly infringe the rules he himself had established.
Other than Petit, it is not easy to say who had the most relevant role, since, in his eagerness to control everything, the funambulist had absolute domination, even on the official narrative of the Twin Towers assault. Besides him, none of his accomplices wrote anything about that epic journey. He accredits the main collaboration to Jean-Louis Blondeau, companion of many adventures, with highlight to the crossings in Paris and in New York. In this last adventure, Blondeau was supposed to exclusively capture the images of Petit on the wire, but Alan Welner (“Albert”), one of the troupe members, also photographed the crossing, after having denied to collaborate in the arduous task of stretching the steel cable between the two towers. At the end, he sold the images to the press. Philippe never forgave him. In fact, Petit was not at all as harsh and caustic in regard to others who gave up, such as the Australian Mark Lewis. For all purposes, Alan Welner ascended with him to the Twin Towers, failing at the last instance. Hence the hatred Petit still has for him today.
Once the crossing was concluded, the cumulative tensions made the group fall apart in a short time. There are still many silences and shadowy zones on everything that happened, including the preparation of the performance. Annie left, Petit later became involved with Elaine Fasula, an autodidact painter with whom he had a daughter. Without medical help, Philippe handled the birth alone, cut the umbilical cord, bathed the newborn, who, much to her father’s pleasure, presented a physical characteristic which greatly favors the work of the funambulists: on the feet, the hallux (i.e., the large toe) was well apart from the remainder of the toes, which allows a better support on the wire. In 1975, Petit spent a year in the circus, finally ending up accepting a proposal for work paid by others. The experience was somewhat painful for his rebellious and individualistic spirit. In any case, it remains to be known if that inability to work under others’ orders doesn’t result from Petit’s tyrannical drive to control everything and everyone; in sum, from his profound mistrust of others, which runs alongside an enormous self-confidence in his own gifts and capabilities.
After a year in a circus tournée, Petit had plunged into relative oblivion, from which he was rescued largely due to Kathy O’Donnell’s talents for organization and public relations. Daughter of an executive who had risen to vice-president of the Doubleday group, Kathy grew up in Manhattan and worked in the editorial world until 1987, when she met Philippe Petit and started helping him to prepare one of his crossings, the famous performance Walking the Harp / A Bridge for Peace, which connected disputing neighborhoods from the city of Jerusalem. She became the producer of his performances and his companion, to whom Petit dedicates all the books he publishes, calling her his “partner in crime” (on several occasions, the funambulist likes to brag about having a “criminal mind”). However, the fact is that Kathy only appeared in Philippe’s life when he had moved from apocalyptic to integrated, having long before abandoned the clandestine crossings and, so to speak, the world of crime.
One year after Philippe Petit’s feat, the New-Yorker Owen J. Quinn became the first man to jump from the Twin Towers with the aid of a parachute. Once again, it was a clandestine adventure. On July 22nd of 1975, Quinn entered into the WTC disguised as a construction worker, while an accomplice distracted the security guard. Once arrived at the roof, his mate took his picture, which he named “The Point of No Return”, and Quinn jumped into the emptiness, wearing a shirt with an inscription from the Gospel of Mathew. In May of 1977, George Willig, also known as the “Human Fly” or “Spider-Man”, climbed to the top of the WTC South Tower, a climb which took him over three hours. Years later, on May 30th of 1983, the performer Dan Goodwin did the same on the North Tower, on top of which he hoisted the USA flag, in memory of the Americans dead in battle.
On the morning of September 11th of 2001, a suicidal attack would cause many people to become trapped in the higher floors of the Twin Towers. Several people jumped, in panic. The French funambulist, who does not own a television, became aware of what had happened because a friend called him. Philippe was devastated by the collapsing of the WTC. He appealed for the construction of a memorial for the victims and for the towers to be rebuilt exactly as they were, but even higher. He reminded an episode which had occurred in Venice, in 1902, when the Campanile collapsed. Among the debris, a child found an intact brick. A human cordon was formed straight away and each brick was removed, cleaned and stored. At the end of that tragic day, in view of the example given by the city’s inhabitants, the Venetian authorities decided that the Campanile would be rebuilt com’era, dov’era, as it was and where it was. In 1912, a replica of the Campanile was inaugurated on the exact place where the tower had been, a symbol of Sereníssima’s power and prosperity. That was Petit’s proposal for the WTC, a building which the funambulist knew like few. Not long after his crossing, he was given a VIP access card for life, to the South Tower observatory. Probably unaware of it, his crossing had given a strong commercial impulse to the WTC, a building criticized at the time due to the disproportion of its dimensions and its lack of grace and, worse than that, which floors the New York Port Authority was having difficulties renting or selling. Rewarding Petit for the involuntary publicity, the Port Authority invited him to inscribe, with indelible ink, his signature, a drawing of the Twin Towers and the date of the crossing, on the top of the South Tower. On September 11th of 2001, all that fell apart – into ashes and dust.
Turned into a celebrity, Philippe Petit likes to mention countless times the names of the famous who praised him or who say are close to him, from Werner Herzog to Milos Forman, passing through Robin Williams, Christo, Sting, Al Pacino, Annie Leibovitz, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Norman Mailer, Marcel Marceau, Woody Allen and Debra Winger.
Among them, Paul Auster, who saw him, in 1971, juggling on the Paris nights and became fascinated by his “hypnotic charm, oscillating between a devil and a clown”, is given special emphasis. Weeks after seeing Petit’s performance, usually presented in front of the coffee shops La Coupole and Les Deux Magots, Auster became aware, in his night walks, of a strange moving group in the Sena River shores, where he recognized the juggler he had seen perform on the boulevard Montparnasse. On the following day, upon opening the newspaper and facing the news of the Notre Dame crossing, he came to learn the name of the tiny human silhouette the pictures showed, lost in the skies. He guarantees that, after that day, he never again looked at Paris in the same manner.
Auster captured Petit’s genius and that of all funambulists exceptionally. Right away, the intrinsically marginal nature of their work. Then, danger, as an indispensable element of the fascination funambulism provokes: a crossing 3 meters above the ground doesn’t arouse any interest, except, perhaps, for the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who determined that the funambulists’ performances should be high, but not too high, so that the precaution measures for an eventual fall didn’t become useless. On the other hand, Auster highlights the fact that, contrarily to the cascadeurs, who accentuate and emphasize the risk they are under, the funambulists endeavor to dissimulate the risk, so that their task seems natural and gracious, of an elegant, courteous and extremely smooth simplicity. It is that apparent ease which makes us connect with them, naively believing that we would be able to follow them in that choreography, thinking unwisely that there are no technical artifacts or special skills needed to walk on the clouds: it is sufficient to place one foot on the tower, another on the steel cable – and move forward. This connection between the funambulist and the spectators comes apart when they become aware of the inherent danger of walking in the highest emptiness, without any protection or net. At times, the funambulists do something which shows the risk they are under or which deviates from the simple gesture of walking: they kneel or sit on the wire, or lie on it for long minutes, do pirouettes or juggling or simulate a lethal fall. Then, the game and the suspense between the artist and his audience are reestablished. The crowd once again wonders: “will he fall, or will he not?” An ancient trick: already back in the XVIII century the funambulist Antony de Sceaux had become famous for his “drunk walk”, staggering on top of the wire as if he was drunk and about to fall. Showing the enormous difficulty of what he had earlier presented as easy and accessible to all brings funambulism close to the arts of illusion. The walk on the wire became a magician’s trick, when the hidden card is suddenly shown.
Petit has boundless admiration for some, but not many, again on the verge of devotional madness. He confesses his fascination by the feline dexterity of Bruce Lee, praising his contribution for the perception of the factors that promote the balance of the human body, in rest and in movement. As all funambulists, he evokes the mythical figure of Blondin, the first man to cross Niagara Falls, which Petit portrayed in a 1986 Canadian documentary, filmed in Imax system. However, his great master, whom he calls “my mentor”, was another. Less known and, as evident, a bizarre character, already mentioned earlier: Rudolf Omankowsky, Sr., whom he affectionately named “Papa Rudy”, a circus artist from Czechoslovakia who, in his youth, had fascinated his brother Alain and had taught Philippe several tricks and secrets, sometimes, in exchange for money. Upon preparing the performance, Philippe and Annie went to Blois to visit Papa Rudy, who advised the funambulist to hide in his clothes a safety rope, connected to the steel cable. The Frenchman refused: he was a funambule, not a fildefériste.
Throughout the years, Petit published several books, almost all with references to the event which had made him famous (but which had also consumed him in the flames of power and glory). He gives lectures and workshops throughout the world and enlivens TED Talks with his stage tricks. In the audience, so he says, there are Nobel Prize winners, millionaire businessmen, young aspiring funambulists, unsatisfied and curious souls and priests of all creeds. They gather to listen to a red-haired, beardless man of womanish looks, who speaks torrentially, leading those who listen to exhaustion and to the common places he utters about “creativity” and “motivation”. His passion for the movies is still alive – and the frustration of never having been able to direct a film… –, alongside the taste for exquisite cuisine and especially for rare and expensive wines.
Nevertheless, he hasn’t lost his childish sense of curiosity and his multiplicity of interests, almost always focused in actions which involve work with the hands and workshop learning. He still dreams about new projects, some achieved, such as the construction of a barn with the sole use of XVIII century tools, and others yet to be achieved, such as the founding of a Foundation designed for the teaching of arts or especially the aerial crossings on Easter Island, on the Sydney bay, on Niagara Falls, on the Grand Canyon and in Hawaii. Upon approaching the deep canyon which Petit wished to cross, one of the sponsors of the Canyon crossing gave up on the project, firmly convinced that he was financing a suicidal. One million dollars had already been spent on the project, Petit had obtained permission from the Navajo Indians to perform in their territory and the German company Diepa had accepted to produce a wire without lubricant oil in its interior, in its soul. However, the television channels hesitated getting involved in the adventure, with the fear of broadcasting a tragedy live. Always uncompromising, Petit would not allow a television broadcast that wasn’t live, to guarantee the frisson of the feat – and the project of the Colorado River crossing would ultimately never be realized.
Philippe Petit participated in several films and documentaries, some of them about himself, such as Life on the Line, by National Geographic (1993), The Man on the Wire, made in Germany in 1994, with footage of the Frankfurt crossing, and, with a very similar title, Man on Wire, directed by the British James Marsh in 2008, awarded with various prizes, including an Oscar for Best Documentary and two awards at the Sundance Festival. A film on the Manhattan historic crossing will be launched at the movies in October of this year: The Walk, directed by Robert Zemeckis and portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Kingsley, among others.
Oddly enough, unlike in the music scene, where several songs are dedicated to Petit, literary fiction was not very interested in his tour de force. Perhaps because he exhausts the capabilities of imagining something that surpasses and transcends him. Even the most inventive of novelists will have difficulties in conceiving a situation which surpasses that Twin Towers crossing which took place early morning of August 7th of 1974. Following the September 11th attacks, among the abundant palliative literature published in America at the time, a children’s book was edited in 2003, with text and illustrations by Mordicai Gerstein. The book, entitled The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, follows pari passu the report made by Petit in To Reach the Clouds, a book published in 2002 and later re-edited with the title Man on Wire, identical to that of the documentary by James Marsh. Of greater reach is the book Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, published in 2009, translated into Portuguese and winner of the National Book Award. The voluminous novel starts off with Petit’s crossing, to which it dedicates its first pages and one or other short allusion. An excerpt from the book perfectly captures the esthetical sense of that crossing between the towers. “The intersection of a man with the city, the suddenly recovered public space, recently usurped, the city as art. To walk up there and renovate it. Turn it into a different space.” says one of the characters at a given time. Among us, João Tordo published in 2008 The Three Lives, a fiction in which one of the characters, Camila Millhouse Pascal, daughter of circus acrobats, is a funambulist and says, somewhere in the book, that her hero is Philippe Petit, whom she characterizes as a “con artist and a virtuoso”.
Of all the distinctions Petit has been awarded, the most important are the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award, the New-York Historical Society Award and especially the title of Knight of Arts and Literature, granted by the French Ministry of Culture (the funambulist framed the decree of concession and hung it up on the bathroom). However, Petit prefers to point out the first distinction he ever received, still very young, in 1968: an award from the Fondation Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet pour la Vocation, due to his skills of jongleur and funambulist.
Although he made over 80 high-altitude crossings throughout his career and, according to his calculations, walked over 40 thousand kilometers on the wire, the equivalent to the earth’s circumference, in a sense, Petit was imprisoned at the top of the WTC, entangled in the wire and in the spies which had allowed him to get from one tower to the other. After that feat, after one foot on the tower and one foot on the steel wire, there was nothing Petit would do that could stun the world with such clamor and intensity.
His life was marked by an intimate tragedy. In 1992, he saw his nine year-old daughter die suddenly, victim of a brain aneurism. In honor of the ropes which had brought him fame, he had named the child Cordia-Gypsya, a name which didn’t exist until then. Her ashes rest on the St. John the Divine columbarium. Not very far from there, the father also has his work place at the cathedral’s triforium. That’s where he works and trains (and keeps his kilometer-long personal archives), when he isn’t in his retreat on the Catskills, on his walks around the world or on his regular travels to Paris.
In Also Sprach Zarathustra, after talking about ropes and abysses, Nietzsche said that “Man’s greatness is in his being a bridge and not a finish line; what can be loved in Man is his being transition and dishonor”. The theme of the funambulist, the Seiltanzer who builds bridges, inspired several works by painters of the first two decades of the XX century, such as Erich Heckel, E. L. Kirchner, Albert Bloch, August Macke and Paul Klee.
Along the same lines, Philippe Petit stated, on several occasions, that he always tried to créer des liens, whether between the Twin Towers or the Jerusalem Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. To illustrate that side of his character and of his art, he resorts to the verb apprivoiser, used by Saint-Exupéry in the Little Prince. No wonder James Park Morton, dean of St. John the Divine, considered him as one of the most religious men he knew; although he wasn’t a believer, Petit exerts, as few, the word “religion” in its most profound and literal meaning, searching to religare all things, from ancient know-how and trades to contemporary buildings of gigantic proportions.
In truth, his work is inscribed in and prolongs the tradition of the provincial farandoles, connecting it to another tradition: the one which, after the French Revolution, recovered the art of funambulism (from the latin funis, “rope”; and ambulare, “to walk”), until then banned by influence of the Church. In 1807, Pierre Forioso, named l’incomparable, walked between the Concordia Bridge and the Tuileries, to celebrate Napoleon’s birthday. The famous Madame Saqui impressed Bonaparte with her walks in such a way that she was designated Première Acrobate de Sa Majesté l’Empereur et Roi and sent to enliven the troops in campaign. Then, there was Blondin, of course, who even made and ate omelets on top of a rope and who defied the spectators to walk on his back while he crossed the Niagara Falls (predictably, no one accepted the invitation).
Although he isn’t a man of the circus, Petit also establishes yet another connection, this time between the circus tradition of the XIX century and the development of the performing arts in the 60’s of the XX century. Aware that arrogance and excessive confidence are the funambulist’s main enemies, sometimes Petit has outbursts of modesty. He says, for example, that he does not have special athletic abilities or even an unusual sense of balance. That is one of the reasons why he turned away from the circus at a very young age. When Papa Rudy offered him a place in the group Les Diables Blancs, long before his Notre Dame and New York feats, Petit declined the invitation. Later, in 1975, he spent a year in tournée, integrated in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but did not adjust to the style they demanded, with tricks to captivate the audience, doing numbers such as simulating a fall or others which transmitted a notion that funambulism is a much harder art than it seems. In fact, it was there, during a training session, that Petit suffered the single serious fall of his career, breaking several ribs and suffering serious lesions in his internal organs. To add the fact that, in a circus, you always act in the same environment, day after day, with the same rope, always in identical conditions, in a closed and claustrophobic space. There is no challenge to conceive a new device for each performance, adapt it to the surrounding environment, to know in which direction the winds are blowing, analyze the land’s topography and the buildings’ configuration. The circus definitely isn’t the environment Petit prefers. He prefers a simpler, but simultaneously more sophisticated approach, which highlights graciousness and elegance, depuration and sobriety. Although he is no intellectual, his insatiable curiosity certainly led him to know the works of John Cage and especially Merce Cunningham, the happenings of Allan Kaprow and the numerous performances which, as Rose Lee Goldberg points out in his classic on the theme, had a sole common denominator: New York City and, especially, Manhattan Island. It is also quite plausible that, directly or indirectly, Petit may have met the body art and the work of Trisha Brown. The new conscience of the “body in space”, which Brown wished to introduce in Man Walking Down the Side of the Building and in Walking on the Wall, both from 1970, has clear similarities with what Petit tried to do in Paris, Sydney and New York, obviously with a less elaborate speech.
The echo of the attraction for contesting marginality, typical of the end of the 60’s and of the dawning of the following decade, can be heard in Petit’s work, especially in his clandestine crossings. The funambulist, however, confesses his aversion to the contemporary. He states that, if he could choose, he would prefer to live in the Middle Age or in the Renaissance. He additionally mentions that his street performances in the 60’s and 70’s, which greatly allowed him to finance his first adventures on the wire, wouldn’t be possible nowadays, in which people run around the cities with phones in their ears or screaming on the cellphones, without time to stop and admire the smooth and delicate performance of an acrobat or a funambulist. There are certain things he loves in his native country – the wines, the cheeses, the bread, the architecture and the history – but he despises what he designates as the “French system“, just as he despises the American obsession for money, success and power. “I did not choose this country, I chose the Twin Towers”, he said in an interview to the New Yorker. On another occasion, he defined himself as a Luddite, adversary of the industrial modernism and progress, a well-imprinted characteristic in his passion for buildings made of wood, such as the one he built with his own hands. An organization maniac, before each day’s work, he aligned all the utensils he would be using that day on a table, in perfect symmetry, a practice which he still maintains. He has an enormous fascination for objects and artifacts, for the acessoires he uses in his multiple activities. He perceives his work instruments as animals, considering that the ropes and cables which support him are serpents, with a life and will of their own.
Even the plans he draws are seen as living organisms, adaptable according to the circumstances, disposable if the occasion demands it, but unquestionable for those who dare to disrespect them (as all dictators, for Petit, disobedience is synonymous with disloyalty or, worse yet, treason). Philippe fondles the accessories, touches them and verifies if they work. The manipulation of objects is obsessive and constant, to the point of remembering the time when, before the beginning of a game of chess, he saw Boris Spassky adjust all the pieces of the chess board by millimeters. Philippe Petit gives a rational explanation for this impulse of his: the exercise done when practicing an art benefits all the others. Whenever he has oranges in his hand, he throws them in the air and catches them again. The gesture is repeated every morning, at every breakfast. Alongside it, in his retreat on the Catskills, he installed a trapeze right in the middle of the path between the house and the way to work. Whenever he passes through there, either coming or going, he exercises for a few minutes, following a teaching from Bruce Lee, who used all the moments to work his body; even when he watched television, the master of martial arts moved his wrists or his neck unceasingly, which, however, didn’t keep him from dying prematurely and somewhat mysteriously at the age of 33. Even so, the funambulist follows his lesson.
Petit maintains an insatiable curiosity, the interest for all things and a deep attachment to life, lived day by day. The idea of carpe diem, which for many is only a well-intended cliché, isn’t so for Philippe Petit. In a calendar, he notes meticulously what he will do or did every day of his existence. For example, drawing in delicate Fabriano sheets of paper, with a Derwent brand lead pencil, applying the teaching he had received on his private lessons with the pastel painter Sam Szafran. One day, in Paris, Szafran had seen Philippe steal a wristwatch with absolute mastery, in one of his street performances. Szafran invited him to pose for him, in exchange for several pastel paintings. Petit sold them to buy food.
Alongside it, he cumulates tens of notes and file folders on subjects as diverse as children’s books, graphics, illustration, bullfighting, wines, cooking, chess, good restaurants, movies, great escapes and evasions, scale mock-ups and models, bridges, survival techniques, theatre, travels, engineering, puzzles, locks and padlocks, the Divine Proportion and body language. The folders are marked with different colors, each one with its own meaning. The general division separates the files between the “Done” and the “To Do”, according to whether the projects were achieved or not. The proportion between the first and the latter is unknown. In any case, there is a piece of information which we can take for granted: there are no files for irreversibly abandoned projects. For that purpose, Petit usually quotes the poem by Goytisolo, “Palabras para Julia”:
Nunca te entregues ni te apartes
junto al caminho nunca digas
no puedo más y aqui me quedo
y aqui me quedo.
The funambulist criticizes the immoderate use of cars, which leads human beings to lose contact with the reality observed by someone who walks, with eyes wide open to the surrounding world. He hates statistics and its language, looks at IT and computers with disdain, which he calls a “necessary evil tool”, but is knowledgeable of the Internet basics, quoting Google and some sites or blogs. “I hate all those electronic things that supposedly help the human beings. One has stopped smelling, listening or touching things. All our senses are being controlled. But, at the same time, I now I am being an idiot, for having an iPhone which takes pictures, shows which is the closest hospital or how the weather is in Jakarta – all that is, probably, fabulous. I am supposed to be a man of balances, but in this matter, my spirit of mind is very unbalanced. I either love or hate”. To make matters worse, Alain Petit, Philippe’s brother, works with computers, leading him to say, with his usual cruelty, that he has “a stupid job, working with computers, those stupid machines”. Philippe never works with a dictionary close to him, believing that checking that work would remove his writing’s spontaneity and would hinder his search for the correct word. In his draft, he uses a complex color code, in which the sentences in red are the ones which need improvement, the ones in blue are those which must be further explored and developed and only the ones written in black can be accepted as final. Then, he writes the draft in sepia, with a permanent ink pen and only then takes it to the computer, the “evil machine”. He despises his MacBook Air since, as per all the IT machines, it only grants him a binary option – “yes” or “no” –, not giving any room for “maybe”, the most fruitful choice. It isn’t by chance that Petit likes to read spy novels, where reality is never presented in black and white. The “maybe” allows him to keep the dream, or illusion, that he will live long enough to finish all his projects, even the maddest and most ambitious ones. He hates specialization: “Do not specialize. Do it all”, is one of the maxims with which he ends the book Creativity.
Among his mania, he takes advantage of his frequent long-course travels to incessantly scrabble. In fact, he has the habit of noting everything he watches and does, or thinks of doing, since his childhood. He has another habit: he always carries in his pocket a silver coin with the sphinx of Maria Teresa of Austria, which he received from a dear friend, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog. He uses it every time he wishes to practice or perform a trick, which happens quite often. His attention to details leads him to revel in the aizuchi, the expressions the Japanese use in their daily conversations to signal the interlocutor that they are interested in what he’s saying and wish to maintain the dialogue: Hai. Ee. Soo desu ka? Soo desu ne. Something which, in Portuguese, translates into “ai, sim?” (oh yes?), “realmente…” (really…) or “de facto…” (in fact…). Petit also delights in asking himself prosaic and ridiculous questions, which he feels are pertinent: “why do we tear a piece of paper before throwing it into the waste bin? That way, it will occupy more space!” Another: “why does almost every advertising agency in the world always place the pointers of the clocks in advertisements on 10h10?”
As he demonstrates in his last book, Creativity, the mind of Philippe Petit is filled with concepts à clef, which the author passes onto the readers as if he were a self-help guru. As could be expected, in addition to “serendipity”, he praises the importance of the “focus” on discipline of the human action. Regarding it, he says that when he was walking between the Twin Towers, he could allow himself to evoke a happy childhood memory, but had to clear from his mind all thoughts of everyday life, such as knowing what he would be dining that day. He talks about “space alchemy” to describe his interaction with space, learned with the matadores. He refers that his attraction for curves and zigzagging forms enhances the preponderance of “negative space”, that is, of everything that is between two objects. And, on this subject, mentions that his work as a funambulist consists precisely in filling in – or, at least, intersecting – that “negative space”. According to Petit, what interested him, more than the Notre Dame or the WTC towers, was what remained between them: the open air, the apparent emptiness. Deep down, and perhaps without knowing it, in this search for what is nowhere, Philippe Petit recovers the most ancient tradition of funambulism. In classic Greece and in ancient Rome, funambulism occupied an uncertain place, without a defined statute – it wasn’t considered to be an art or a show, nor a sport or an entertainment. Pausânias wrote that the activity of the funambulists “does not improve the body and mind, and is just violent and fatally dangerous”. Throughout the centuries, funambulism maintained that marginal position, becoming precisely the “negative space” which Petit wants to fill with his crossings. Hence, perhaps, his militant and fighting, almost martial posture: he frequently speaks about the “battle plan” he chalked to climb to the WTC and qualifies that journey as “D Day”, characterizing as an “attack” the moment when he placed one foot on the tower and the other on the steel cable.
Using a term the French mountain climbers use, he says he would like to act solo integral, without anyone’s help, but recognizes that only seldom an “artistic crime” can be performed solitarily. So, you must use “human instruments”, the qualifying term he applies to all those who helped him in his adventures. In addition to using others as instruments, he warns that, of all the tools at our disposal, people are the hardest to use and the less reliable. “It doesn’t matter how you picked them, sooner or later they will betray you. You must learn how to live with it.”, is the advice he gives his readers. And he adds: “do not practice democracy; do not think of others, not even of yourself. Serve only the performance, work only for the dream!”
Most likely, as age advances and tissues soften, Philippe Petit will not repeat the feats which rendered him famous in the past. The days when he made his first clandestine crossing, in the dome of the Grand Palais, to the sound of Dvořak played in a cheap tape recorder, are long gone. And so are the days when, much earlier, in a student exchange with the Soviet Union, he had tried to cross Red Square, but was stopped in time and saved from the Moscow police by the journalism student Valance Lippovitch, a descendant of the Tsars, who is still today the most enthusiastic admirer of the French funambulist, whom he reciprocates by sporadically granting him “exclusive” interviews.
It is unknown if Petit will materialize his project of crossing the Grand Canyon or Easter Island. There are cases of senior funambulists who continued to perform until a very advanced age. With Petit’s present age, the fearless Madame Saqui still walked on the rope, wearing the garments of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim. Philippe boasts to have perfected three great qualities to the extreme – intuition, improvising and observation –, thanks to which, for example, he was never mugged in New York, on the tens of years spent on that city. He goes as far as affirming: “my improvising rarely fails”. He likes to quote a sentence from Bresson (who, not by chance, is the director of the movie Pickpocket), according to which “in every art, there is a diabolical principle which acts against it and tries to demolish it.” According to Petit, the diabolic principle which most disturbs funambulism is the human tendency to postpone and procrastinate.
It is that uneasiness that assaults and terrifies him. He says he has no fear of anything, except of the worst of fears: the fear of being afraid. He repeats exhaustively that life is short, that he hates numbness and lethargy, that he has always been cheered by his “taste for urgency” and that he always embraced his projects with impatient excitement – which makes us guess the torments which his accomplices went through every time the crossing between the towers was postponed.
However, even in the arts of funambulism, others did as much or more than him. In 1965, Henri Réchatin crossed a distance of 1.6 kilometers at a height of 250 meters, before 40 thousand people; and later, in 1973, he spent six days on top of a rope, twenty-five meters high, on top of a supermarket in Saint Étienne, France. In 1996, at 60 years of age, Réchatin sat on a chair placed on a cable 3842 meters high, on the Mont Blanc mountain range. The record for staying on top of a rope belongs, however, to a Uighur performer, Ahdili, who stayed 22 days on top of a rope, on the shores of Lake Jinhai, in China, in 2002. The fact that Petit lied down on the cable for long minutes, that Blondin cooked omelets on it or that Réchatin or Ahdili remained up high for several days, constitutes an unique gesture of symbolic appropriation of a hostile space, ephemeral and unstable by nature, which is thus subjugated and converted into a residence – that signals the suzerainty of the funambulist over the environment that surrounds him.
More recently, the Canadian Jay Cochrane confirmed successes in the crossing of the Yangtzé river, in China, in Niagara Falls and in the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas. In 2012, the North American Nik Wallenda, who belonged to a dynasty of funambulists dating back to the XVIII century, realized one of Petit’s dreams by being the first man to cross the Grand Canyon. In November of 2014, by walking between two skyscrapers in Chicago, on a cable with a 19 degree slope, Wallenda beat several world records. Television broadcasted the crossing with the delay of some seconds, foreseeing the eventuality of the occurrence of a tragic incident and having to stop the broadcast to spare the spectators the view of a live death. A vision which never frightened Petit, the great.
To my twin towers.
(originalmente publicado na revista XXI. Ter Opinião, nº 5, Jul.-Dez. 2015; tradução para inglês de Isabel Ribeiro Aguiar).