Turning Point

New Yorkers didn’t much care for the twin towers until a nimble Frenchman named Philippe Petit danced across a wire between them

In 1974, a week before his 26th birthday, Philippe Petit strung a cable between the not-yet-completed twin towers of the World Trade Center already dominating lower Manhattan's skyline and for the better part of an hour walked back and forth over the void, demonstrating his astonishing obsession to 100,000 or so wide-eyed New Yorkers gathered below.

"I missed that performance," writes Rudolph Chelminski in this month's Smithsonian, "but last summer, just two weeks before the 1,360-foot-tall towers would come to symbolize a ghastly new reality, I persuaded Petit to accompany me to the top and show me how he did it and, perhaps, explain why."

Petit had been planning the walk ever since he was 19 when, in a dentist's waiting room, he saw an article with an artist's rendering of the gigantic towers planned for New York's financial district. The World Trade Center was not his first caper, but it would be the ultimate test of his fanatically meticulous planning. Three years before New York, Petit had walked back and forth for three hours on a barely perceptible wire between the massive towers of Notre Dame Cathedral. Then he appeared with his balancing pole between the gigantic northern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. Both times he was arrested for disturbing the peace, among other offenses.

Disturbing the peace was a good part of what it was all about, of course, because Petit was out to prove something. Notre Dame had been his first declaration of status: he was not a mere street entertainer but a performer, an artiste. Ever since then, he has dedicated himself to demonstrating his passionate belief that the high wire—his approach to the high wire, that is—transcends the cheap hype of circus "daredevil" routines to become a creative statement of true theater, as valid as ballet or modern dance.

As a creative statement, the twin towers were hard to ignore for Petit. At a few minutes past 7 A.M. on August 7, 1974, after a long night spent rigging a wire across the 140-foot gap with the help of three friends, Petit seized his balancing pole and stepped out over the void.

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