Philippe Petit: High-Wire Walking Notre Dame And The World Trade Center

Culture | April 26, 2019

Left: Philippe Petit's 1971 stunt at Notre Dame de Paris, as dramatized in the 2015 film 'The Walk.' Right: a still from 'Man On Wire,' the 2008 documentary about Petit's 1974 World Trade Center walk. Source for both: IMDB

You've heard of the daredevil who walked a wire between the towers of New York's World Trade Center: Philippe Petit. But Notre Dame de Paris, the cathedral that caught fire in April 2019, was his first headline-making quest. In 1971, Petit stepped out on a wire between Notre Dame's two towers and strolled across, even pausing at the midpoint for a performance. Three years later, Petit took on the Twin Towers in NYC, a feat that was documented heavily at the time, and provided fodder for the 2008 documentary Man On Wire and the 2015 film The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt. As was his modus operandi, Petit had no permission for either stunt, and was technically engaging in a criminal act.

The Early Years Of An Artistic Criminal

Petit was a juggler early on (Source: Steven Moore, Columbia Artists)

Born on August 13, 1949 in France, Petit started learning magic tricks at the age of 6; within a few years he learned how to juggle. By 16, he started to walk on the tightrope. By 18, he had been kicked out of five schools. But he followed his passion: performance.

Philippe Petit Takes On Notre Dame

Petit doing his 'Notre Dame' move in June 1971; Petit on a wire in a still from 'Man On Wire' (2008). Source: STF/AFP/Getty Images; IMDB

In 1971, Petit illegally walked on a wire between the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Halfway across, he paused, laid down on his back, and did a little juggling -- why not? The act of lying down on the wire is a curious one -- here's how he explained it to Black Book:

I don't know why, but I call it 'Notre Dame,' because it's a movement that I did for my first time in my life between the towers of Notre Dame, my most famous, first illegal walk. I learned it in France by posing for a painter who tried all kinds of positions and said 'Lay down on the wire,' and I stayed there for almost a half hour, and it hurt like hell, and then it became almost comfortable. If I closed my eyes I could go to sleep.

Petit was 21 when he pulled his Notre Dame stunt. Two years later, he crossed the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, also illegally.

Why Did He Do This, Anyway?

Walking across the Great Falls, NJ. (Source: Reddit)

He was inspired in his dentist’s office in 1968, after seeing an artist’s rendition of the Twin Towers, then only being built in downtown New York City, in a newspaper. He prepared for 6 years, studying the effects of the wind on the buildings and figuring out the other important details. In preparation for the walk, his accomplices built a scale model for him to practice on. He studied the towers intently over multiple visits, even visiting the site in a helicopter.

The Twin Towers Are Briefly Joined

Philippe Petit walks on the wire between the Twin Towers (Source: IMDB)

Construction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center began back in 1968. By 1972, tenants had moved into both towers. For a brief time on August 7, 1974, the two towers were connected by a 440-pound, 200 foot long cable. The public watched in awe as Philippe Petit walked above them.

Preparing And 'Walking'

Lying down on the wire (Source: Reddit)

To gain access, he and his accomplices had disguised themselves as tourists, white collar workers, construction workers, and contractors installing an electric fence on the roof. He even claimed he was a journalist. To pull off these performances, they had to study workers.

His plan was almost derailed when he stepped on a nail, injuring his foot. To get the wire across, he shot it with a bow and arrow. After hiding his equipment in the towers, he and his accomplices hid in the building on the night of August 6, 1974. The next morning, he walked for 45 minutes on the wire suspended between the two buildings. Or, to be more accurate, he walked, danced, knelt, and even laid down on the wire, making eight crossings in total.

His Arrest And Punishment

Performing in Central Park. (Source: Kathy O'Donnell, Columbia Artists)

Police officers tried to persuade him to come down; he finally did because it had started to rain. He was arrested for trespassing, but his stunt brought much-needed positive attention to the towers, so all charges were dropped in exchange for his agreement to put on a free aerial performance in Central Park. He was also given a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers’ observation deck.

He has walked on the high wire more than 80 times over the course of his career. In 1989, he walked across the Seine on an inclined wire, arriving at the second level of the Eiffel Tower to deliver a copy of the Declaration of the Rights Of Man to Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac. The feat was a celebration of the document's 200th anniversary.

Petit's Celebrity Status After The Walk

(Source: IMDB)

He has been a featured TED Talks speaker, appeared on a few television shows, and has written several books, including Why Knot?: How to Tie More than Sixty Ingenious, Useful, Beautiful, Lifesaving, and Secure Knots!, Creativity: The Perfect Crime, and To Reach The Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between The Twin Towers. He has worked as an artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

In 2008, the movie Man on Wire was released. Based on his feat, it won 46 awards, including an Oscar for Best Documentary. At the Oscars, while onstage with the director, James Marsh, he balanced the award on his chin and thanked the Academy for “believing in magic.” In 2009, author Colum McCann published Let The Great World Spin, a novel set against the background of Petit’s walk. The novel won the National Book Award.

The Inspiring Criminal

(Source: Wikipedia)

As he said in Man on Wire, “To me, it's, it's really, it's so simple, that life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion, to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every, every idea as a, as a true challenge, and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope."

Tags: Career-Defining Moments | Daredevils | Notre Dame | Philippe Petit | Remember This?... | Stunts | World Trade Center

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!