Philippe Petit, the Last Sky Poet

Anticipating the 45th anniversary of Philippe Petit’s incredible tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York, the New Directions publishing house has rereleased his book, On the High Wire, a practical, poetic little work translated into English by New York writer Paul Auster.
Philippe Petit between the two towers at the World Trade Center, August 7, 1974. © Alan Welner/AP

Philippe Petit sitting down is a sad sight to behold. He usually inspires images of a taut wire walk between the Twin Towers on August 7, 1974, or between Trocadero and the second floor of the Eiffel Tower on August 26, 1989. You expect to discover a skinny figure, lightweight, gracious, and ethereal. But sat on a comfortable sofa in the shadows of a Manhattan bar, the 69-year-old high-wire artist seems diminished, as if imprisoned.

You have to see him stood up to fully grasp his talent and aura. Or leap from his chair and walk along an imaginary wire on the tips of his toes in red pants, miming climbing movements on a doorframe, stretching his ankle like a gymnast to outline little circles in the air with the point of his shoe. Then you see Philippe Petit: clown, dancer, acrobat, magician, tightrope walker, artist.

A Self-Taught Acrobat and Renaissance Man

In the United States, where he has lived for the last 40 years, Philippe Petit is described as a “Renaissance man” who has taught himself English, German, Spanish, Russian, juggling, magic, music, drawing, carpentry, and the art of balancing on a wire. He personally builds each of his installations, drawing the site plan, sometimes even making a model, calculating where to attach the cable, and gathering the necessary equipment. “I don’t have a technical degree from any school,” he says. “But I have become, in a way, an engineer.”

The high-wire artist plans his “coups” with the meticulousness of a bank robber. This stage is what he refers to as “doing his homework.” The 1989 Notre-Dame feat required three years of scouting and preparation, and the 1974 Twin Towers performance took six and a half years. After discovering a photo of the towers under construction in Paris Match, the Frenchman disguised himself successively as a tourist, a journalist specialized in architecture, and a construction worker in order to observe the skyscrapers. He then copied the workers’ outfits and forged a security pass to gain access to the roof!

© Alan Welner/AP

Philippe Petit’s performance above Manhattan lasted 45 minutes. Enough time to walk eight times back and forth between the towers – as well as kneel down and lie flat on the 3/4-inch wire – before surrendering to the police. “It was an intense experience,” he says. “When people ask me about it, I relive my first step on the wire as if it were yesterday. I physically feel the steel under my feet, and mentally, I remember the mixture of terror, ambition, joy, and euphoria.”

Ground Training

Philippe Petit was born in Nemours in the Seine-et-Marne département, but considers himself a “New Yorker at heart.” He has an office at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, where he has been an artist in residence since 1980, but spends most of his time in Shokan, a small mountain town in Upstate New York. This is where he rehearses his performances, first on the floor along a line of traffic cones, then on a wire stretched across his garden.

“Every moment is choreographed and set to music,” says the tightrope walker. He removes a bundle of drawings, plans, and charts from a bag – the details of a walk he recently completed in Connecticut. Indications in French and English – “regards,” “Vivaldi,” “trumpets” – are dotted across the 12-minute performance. In his flowery language, “Notre-Dame” means lying down on the wire.

“I was a perfectionist before I even knew what the word meant,” says Philippe Petit. “I was a daydreamer as a kid. I started climbing trees at the age of six to explore the world and rebel against my condition as an insignificant ant. When I was 16, I took my first steps on a wire set three feet above the ground between two trees in a public garden.”

Above Niagara Falls

Philippe Petit has since completed more than 80 crossings, including in Central Park, at the New Orleans football stadium, above the Niagara Falls in New York State, the Paterson Falls in New Jersey, and in Grand Central Station in Manhattan. He has also been invited to perform by a number of American institutions including the Natural History Museum in New York and the World Theatre Festival in Denver, Colorado, as well as being portrayed in a dozen movies including the documentary Man on Wire and the blockbuster The Walk directed by Robert Zemeckis.

But the tightrope walker has never stopped his street performances. “Philippe has never cashed in on his World Trade Center coup,” says his friend and translator, writer Paul Auster. “After that, he was back in Washington Square Park juggling for nickels and dimes. I am amazed by the purity of his art.”

However, Philippe Petit does regret he is not approached more, especially in France. He has not performed in his native country since the Eiffel Tower feat in 1989. He offered to recreate his walk between the two towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral after the fire in April 2019, but his emails to the French Ministry of Culture went unanswered. “Maybe they refuse artists who have left to live abroad,” he says. “Or maybe no one knows I am still alive.”

The Last High-Wire Walker

In his book, On the High Wire (Traité du funambulisme), written when he was 18 and published for the first time in 1997, Philippe Petit elaborates on the art of walking across the void with the arrogance inherent to his age. The book covers training, preparing and installing a galvanized steel cable more than 3,200 feet long, the movements to include in the performance, and techniques for battling against the wind, the “enemy of the high-wire walker.” “Acquiring this knowledge,” he writes in an authoritarian tone, “is the work of a lifetime.”

At almost 70 years old, this “conquistador of the useless,” as nicknamed by his friend, German director Werner Herzog, is working on a new challenge: passing on his knowledge before it is too late. He hopes to sell his archives to a museum or a foundation. He has dozens of trunks filled with the preparations for each performance – including those that never happened, such as at the New York Public Library, canceled ten hours before the big show – as well as his writings on the history of tightrope walking.

Occasionally, Philippe Petit organizes classes at his home in the countryside, but there are very few candidates. “Anyone can become a circus stunt performer or a rope dancer six feet off the floor with a little umbrella,” he says bitterly. “But no one wants to become a high-wire artist because it is a nightmare. The equipment weighs a ton, you never get the permits, and you risk your life – supposedly. Nobody does, like I do, theater, poetry, art in the sky.”

On the High Wire
(Traité du funambulisme) by Philippe Petit, New Directions Publishing, 2019.