Philippe Petit and the “Artistic Crime of the Century”

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Podcast Transcript

On the morning of August 7, 1974, the people of New York City woke up to witness one of the most incredible sights that the city had ever seen. 

Between the two towers of the New York World Trade Center, 1,350 feet off of the ground, was a man who was waking on a wire.

It was audacious. It was dangerous. It was also totally illegal. 

Learn more about Philippe Petit and the artistic crime of the century, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

If the events of August 7, 1974, hadn’t occurred, if people hadn’t seen it with their own eyes, and if we didn’t have documented evidence that it happened, the story might be written off as fiction.

The story actually began years earlier in 1968. If you remember back to my episode on the World Trade Center, construction of the north tower began in 1968 and the south tower began in 1969. 

Born in France in 1949, Philippe Petit was a street performer. He rode a unicycle, juggle, and did a street wire balancing act.  He took his first steps on a high wire when he was 16 and was trained by the legendary aerialist and circus performer Rudy Omankowsky.

In 1968, a 17-year-old Philippe Petit, while sitting in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, saw an article in a magazine about the construction of the two World Trade Center buildings. When completed, they would be the tallest buildings in the world.

According to Petit the idea of walking between the two towers came to him immediately when he saw a photo of the two proposed buildings. He faked a sneeze, tore the photo out of the magazine, rushed out of the dentist’s office, and began what would be six years of planning. 

There was an enormous amount that went into the planning for what Petit had dubbed “le coup”. 

For starters, Petit wasn’t at that point a very experienced tightrope walker. He came up with the idea for the world’s most audacious high wire walk a little over a year after he first learned how to walk on a wire. 

So much of the next several years was simply practicing his craft and getting more experience. 

The other thing was physically planning for how he was going to pull off le coup.

There were a host of technical issues which had to be solved. 

For starters, he couldn’t do this alone. He needed a team of people to help him pull this off. There were two towers and he needed people on the top of each tower to assist in setting up the cable. 

Second, he needed to figure out a way to stretch the cable between the two towers. The distance between the two towers was 138 feet or 42 meters. That much steel cable is really heavy, and stretching it between two buildings, over 1,300 feet up in the air, is really challenging. The total weight of the cable was 450-pounds or 200 kilograms.

Third, he had to figure out a way to attach guy wires, known as cavalletti, to the building. Guy wires would usually be offset from the main wire vertically and horizontally, but that wouldn’t be possible as everything had to be horizontally and attached to the roof. 

Fourth, he had to compensate for the movement of the buildings. Both buildings were designed to sway slightly in the wind. With his weight on the wire, there was a possibility of it snapping if it wasn’t set up properly.

Finally, he had to get all of this gear up to the top of the building, and a second-team up to the top of the other building, without anyone finding out. 

Over the next several years he acquired a group of accomplices to help him pull off le coup

He engaged in several practices stunts prior to the World Trade Center attempt. 

In 1971, he and an accomplice sunk into the towers of the Notre Dame cathedral and strung a wire between them. They started by throwing a juggling ball wrapped in fishing line between the towers and then used that to pull a rope, which then pulled the cable. 

A crowd assembled while there was ordination service for new priests going on inside.

This was highly illegal, and he was arrested after he got down.

In 1973, he pulled another illegal high wire walk when he walked between the north pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia

After the World Trade Center towers were opened, he made several scouting missions to New York to gather more information on the towers. 

He would wear various disguises to scout the tower and take photos, sometimes dressing like a tourist, sometimes as an architect, and he even posed as a journalist from the French architectural magazine, Metropolis.

In preparation back in France, he strung a wire which was the approximate distance he’d have to walk in New York and had his friends shake the wire as much as possible to simulate the buildings moving, and the wind blowing. 

As operations moved to New York to prepare for the coup, he recruited several Americans as accomplices. One, in particular, was an American by the name of Barry Greenhouse.

Greenhouse actually recognized Petit when Petit was on one of his reconnaissance missions to the towers. Greenhouse was in the crowd during his tightrope walk of Notre Dame and saw the subsequent media coverage. 

Greenhouse happened to work on the 82nd floor of the South Tower for the New York State Insurance Department. 

Greenhouse became their inside man and was able to get them ID badges and access to the building. 

The solution they came up with to get the wire across was to use a bow and arrow with a fishing line to the arrow. The fishing line then was attached to a small rope which then was attached to the steel cable. 

On the evening of August 6, they managed to sneak their equipment up to the 104th floor right away, even though the plan was to only get to the 82nd floor. 

They suffered a huge delay when a guard came up to their floor, and they had to hide under a tarp. The tarp covered an open elevator shaft and they had to sit on an I-beam suspended above the shaft for several hours. 

Eventually, the guard left and they got to work. 

On the other building, one of the team members freaked out because he thought he’d get caught and left in the middle of the setup. 

They had other problems as well. They couldn’t find the arrow and the fishing line at first, and when they found it, the wire actually fell down the side of one of the buildings and had to be pulled up by the rope.

They were behind schedule, but they managed to have everything set up and in place just after sunrise, and without anyone noticing.

A little after 7 am, Philippe Petit set foot on the wire to begin his historic walk. 

Soon after he began, his accomplices which were down below with binoculars saw him and began to notify the people on the street. 

At first, he just set out to accomplish the primary goal: walk across a wire between the World Trade Center buildings. 

He did that and stepped onto the other building. However, having accomplished le coup….. he then went back out on the wire. 

He didn’t just cross the wire. He knelt down on the wire to salute the people assembled 400 meters or 1,312 feet below him. 

He laid down on his back on the wire. He even danced a little bit on the wire. 

Eventually, the police made it to the rooftop of both towers. There was also a traffic helicopter that was flying overhead to report on what was happening. 

The police goaded him to get off the wire, but every time he approached one of the buildings, he would just turn around and walk back. 

Over the course of 45 minutes, he crossed the wire a total of eight times!

Eventually, he hopped off the wire as it started to rain and he was arrested and put into custody, as were his accomplices on the roof. 

While he was arrested, no one was really mad at him. The police officers had respect for what he had done, as did everyone who saw his performance. 

The New York district attorney decided not to press charges on the condition that he give a free performance for children in Central Park….which he was more than happy to do. 

Perhaps most importantly, he totally changed the perception of the World Trade Center among New Yorkers. Prior to le coup, the buildings were largely thought of as an eyesore. Afterward, the perception of the building became more positive and New Yorkers took more pride in them and accepted them as their own.

The owners of the World Trade Center gave Philippe Petit a lifetime pass to the observation deck, and he even signed the steel beam where he started his walk. 

Once the walk and all its repercussions were over, Petit decided to stay in New York. He became an artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a position he still holds today in his 70s.

He performed several other significant highwire acts in his career. He walked an inclined wire up to the second level of the Eiffel Tower in 1989. He also did walks over the Niagara River and a section of the Grand Canyon

His 1974 walk was the subject of the award-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire, and he served as the advisor to the 2015 film, The Walk starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit.

Almost 50 years after it happened, Philippe Petit’s audacious and illegal crossing of the World Trade Center towers remains the most famous highwire performance in history. 

It has rightfully earned its reputation as the artistic crime of the century. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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