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Walk the line
Tara Brady meets the remarkable Phillipe Petit, who in 1974 walked across a tightrope tied between the Twin Towers in New York.
Tara Brady, 05 Aug 2008
In 1968, an 18-year-old street performer named Philippe Petit was waiting in a dentist’s office in Paris, nursing a toothache, when he came across an article about the planned twin towers in New York. Staring at an artist’s impression of the project, the young funambulist was struck by a notion that to less daring minds seems inconceivable.
“They called me,” he later wrote. “I didn’t choose them. Anything that is giant and manmade strikes me in an awesome way and calls me. It was something that had to be done, a calling of the romantic type.”
Affecting a sneeze, Petit ripped the relevant page from a magazine and made for the exit. His dental agonies would have to wait. “What was it to have a toothache for another week,” he reasoned. “I now had a dream.”
Forty years on he still appears fired up by the recollection of this fateful moment.
“I did not see the poetry of the towers at first,” he tells me. “But I was so attracted by the audacity, the notion of building something so impossible. I gasped at the idea. They were marvels of engineering if you study them as such. And finally, when I came to New York I came to know them in a tangible everyday way and I fell so in love with them, I had to marry them in my own way.”
The young Petit had always been a dreamer and maker of mischief. A series of grand schemes and a healthy disregard for authority had already seen him expelled from every school he had attended.
“When I started to learn magic at the age of six I was conjuring a lot,” he beams. “And at some point I was training how to pick pockets and steal watches. Even then I had a humorous distain for authority. I was identified as a criminal but really I just did not wish to conform to other peoples’ schedules. So I kept getting thrown out.”
Once legally emancipated from his parents, Petit became an autodidact polymath of staggering proportions.
“For me, it was not about the spirit of the times or anarchy or any tradition,” he tells me. “On the contrary, it was a very private personal process. I just did not like being told how to live my life. It drove me to learn by myself many things.”