Philippe Petit: Wikis


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Philippe Petit

Petit at the 81st Academy Awards in February 2009
Born August 13, 1949 (1949-08-13) (age 60)
Nemours, France
Occupation High wire artist

Philippe Petit (born August 13, 1949) is a French high wire artist who gained fame for his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on August 7, 1974.[1] For his feat (that he referred to as "le coup" [2]), he used a 450-pound (200 kg) cable and a custom-made 26-foot (7.9 m) long, 55-pound (25 kg) balancing pole.


Early career

Petit was born in Nemours, France in 1949; his father, Edmond Petit, was an author and a former Army pilot. Philippe became interested in magic at a very early age. A strong rebellious streak got him expelled from five different schools, and by the age of 15 he had run away from home. By the late 1960s, he had trained himself as a wire-walker. "Within one year," he told a reporter, "I taught myself to do all the things you could do on a wire. I learned the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair on the wire, jumping through hoops. But I thought, 'What is the big deal here? It looks almost ugly.' So I started to discard those tricks and to reinvent my art."[3] Spurning circuses and their formulaic performances, he began performing as a street busker in Paris. In the early 1970s, he frequently juggled and worked on a slack rope in New York City's Washington Square Park.

Beginning in the 1970s, Petit began eyeing world-famous structures as stages for high-wire walks, which he executed as a combination of circus act and public performance. He performed his first such walk between the towers of the Notre Dame de Paris. In 1973, he walked a wire rigged between the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in Sydney, Australia.[4]

World Trade Center walk

Petit's most famous work was his performance which he executed at the World Trade Center in Manhattan.


Petit was first inspired to attempt what he called his "le coup" on the Twin Towers while he sat in his dentist's office in Paris in 1968. In a magazine, he came upon an article about the as-yet-unconstructed buildings, along with an illustration of the model. He became obsessed with the towers, collecting articles on them whenever possible.

The 'artistic crime of the century' took six years of planning, during which Petit learned everything he could about the buildings, taking into account such problems as the swaying of the towers because of wind, and how to rig the steel cable across the 140-foot (43 m) gap between the towers (at a height of 1,368 ft (417.0 m)). He traveled to New York on several occasions to make first-hand observations. Since the towers were still under construction, Philippe and NY-based photographer Jim Moore[2] went up in a helicopter to make aerial photographs of the WTC.[2]

Petit sneaked into the towers several times, hiding on the roof and other areas in the unfinished towers, in order to get a sense of what type of security measures were in place. Using his own observations and Moore's photographs, Petit was able to make a scale model of the towers to help him design the rigging he needed to prepare for the wirewalk. He made fake identification cards for himself and his collaborators (claiming that they were contractors who were installing an electrified fence on the roof) to gain access to the towers. Prior to this, to make it easier to get into the buildings, Petit carefully observed the clothes worn by construction workers and the kinds of tools they carried. He also took note of the clothing of businessmen so that he could blend in with them when he tried to enter the buildings. He observed what time the workers arrived and left, so he could determine when he would have roof access. As the target date of his "coup" approached, he claimed to be a journalist with a French architecture magazine so that he could gain permission to interview the workers on the roof. The Port Authority allowed Petit to conduct the interviews, which he used as a pretext to make more observations. He was once caught by a police officer on the roof, and his hopes to do the high wire walk were dampened, but he eventually regained the confidence to proceed.

On the night of August 6, 1974, Petit and his crew were able to ride in a freight elevator to the 104th floor with their equipment, and to store this equipment just nineteen steps from the roof. In order to pass the cable across the void, Petit and his crew had settled on using a bow and arrow. They first shot across a fishing line, and then passed larger and larger ropes across the space between the towers until they were able to pass the 450-pound steel cable across. Two cavalettis (guy lines) anchored to other points on the roof were used to stabilize the cable and keep the swaying of the wire to a minimum.[2]


On August 7, 1974, shortly after 7:15 a.m., Petit stepped off the South Tower and onto his 3/4" 6×19 IWRC (independent wire rope core [5]) steel cable. He walked the wire for 45 minutes, making eight crossings between the towers, a quarter mile above the sidewalks of Manhattan. In addition to walking, he sat on the wire, gave knee salutes and, while lying on the wire, spoke with a gull circling above his head.

As soon as Petit was observed by witnesses on the ground, the Port Authority Police Department dispatched officers to the roof to take him into custody. One of the officers, Sgt. Charles Daniels, later reported his experience:

I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....Everybody was spellbound in the watching of it.[6]

Petit was warned by his friend on the South Tower that a police helicopter would come to pick him off the wire unless he got off. Rain had begun to fall, and Petit decided he had taken enough risks, so he decided to give himself up to the police waiting for him on the South Tower. He was arrested once he stepped off the wire. Provoked by his taunting behaviour while on the wire, police handcuffed him behind his back and roughly pushed him down a flight of stairs. This he later described as the most dangerous part of the stunt.[7]

His audacious high wire performance made headlines around the world. When asked why he did the stunt, Petit would say "When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."

Although movie cameras were on the roof during the walk, the person who was supposed to film the walk did not do so, apparently due to exhaustion.[8]


The immense news coverage and public appreciation of Petit's high wire walk resulted in all formal charges relating to his walk being dropped. The court did however "sentence" Petit to perform a show for the children of New York City, which he transformed into another high-wire walk, in Central Park above Belvedere Lake (which has now become Turtle Pond). Petit was also presented with a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He signed a steel beam close to the point where he began his walk.

Petit's high-wire walk is credited with bringing the then rather unpopular Twin Towers much needed attention and even affection.[9] Up to that point, critics such as historian Lewis Mumford had regarded them as ugly and utilitarian. The landlords were having trouble renting out all of their office space.[9]

The documentary film Man on Wire by UK director James Marsh, about Petit's 1974 WTC performance, won both the World Cinema Jury and Audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival 2008. The film also won awards at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C. and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Petit was on stage to help accept the award, making a coin vanish in his hands while thanking the Academy "for believing in magic" and then balanced the Oscar by its head on his chin to cheers from the audience.

Petit has made dozens of public high-wire performances in his career; in 1986 he re-enacted the crossing of the Niagara River by Blondin for an Imax film. In 1989, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, mayor Jacques Chirac permitted him to walk a wire strung from the ground, at the Place du Trocadéro, to the second level of the Eiffel Tower.

He is one of the Artists-in-Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. He currently lives in Woodstock, New York.


  • Philippe Petit, Two towers, I walk, (New York: Reader's Digest, 1975), ASIN B00072LQRM.
  • Philippe Petit, On The High Wire, Preface by Marcel Marceau, (New York: Random House, 1985). ISBN 039471573X.
  • Philippe Petit, Traité du funambulisme, Preface by Paul Auster, (Paris: Albin Michel, 1997), ISBN 2226041230, (in French / en français).
  • Philippe Petit, To Reach The Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between The Twin Towers, (New York, North Point Press, 2002). ASIN B000UDX0JA, ISBN 0865476519
  • Philippe Petit, "Alcanzar las nubes", Alpha Decay, Barcelona, 2007. ISBN 978-84-934868-9-1


  1. ^ "Stuntman, Eluding Guards, Walks a Tightrope Between Trade Center Towers; Free Performance Due 200 Planning Trips.". New York Times. August 8, 1974, Thursday. Retrieved 2008-04-18. "Combining the cunning of a second-story man with the nerve of an Evel Knievel, a French high-wire artist sneaked past guards at the World Trade center, ran a cable between the tops of its twin towers and tightrope-walked across it yesterday morning." 
  2. ^ a b c Marsh, James (Director). (2008). Man on Wire. [Documentary]. 
  3. ^ Tomkins, Calvin, "The Man Who Walks on Air," New Yorker Magazine 1999, excerpted in LIFE STORIES, by David Remnick, Modern Library Paperback edition, 2001
  4. ^ Man On Wire DVD, "Philippe Petit's Syndey Harbor Bridge Crossing" bonus feature.
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ "People & Events: Philippe Petit (1948-)" in Episode 8: The Center of the World of New York City: A Documentary Film broadcast on American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service in 2003
  7. ^ Yabroff, Jennie (2008-07-18). "He Had New York At His Feet". Newsweek. Retrieved 2008-08-17. 
  8. ^ Damon Smith, James Marsh, "Dancing in the clouds", Filmmaker Magazine, Summer 2008.
  9. ^ a b "Before & After; Talking of the Towers"New York Times

Further reading

  • Mordicai Gerstein, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (ISBN 0-7613-1791-0). Children's book and winner of the 2004 Caldecott Award. Subsequently adapted into an animated movie of the same name.
  • MSA - The Man Who Walked Between The Towers. Co-produced by Michael Sporn Animation and Weston Woods Studio
  • The 2002 graphic novel 9-11: Artists Respond included a feature on Petit, written by David Chelsea, entitled "He Walks on Air 110 Stories High".[3]
  • Ralph Keyes, Chancing It: Why We Take Risks (ISBN 0-316-49132-2), 1985. Chapter 1, pp. 7–19 covers Petit, including information on his fears (spiders, marriage, parenthood). Fine quotes on balancing fear and joy.
  • Gillespie, Angus K. Twin Towers: the Life of New York City's World Trade Center. Rutgers University Press 1999.
  • Glanz, James and Eric Lipton. City in the Sky. New York: Times Book, 2003.
  • McCann, Colum. "Let The Great World Spin". New York: Random House, 2009. A novel based upon Petit's WTC walk.

External links

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