Before Banksy, Philippe Petit’s Famous Walk Between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center

Deep in Colum McCann’s epic saga, Let the Great World Spin, just past the mid-way point of the book, McCann unleashes his fantastic description of Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. It is breathtaking and comical and unbelievable. Indeed, after reading this section I immediately wondered how much literary license McCann had taken with his blow by blow description of Petit’s feat. The answer: not much.

If you are unfamiliar with Petit’s remarkable performance you might understand my initial skepticism. After all, this is a man who strung a steel wire less than an inch thick between the two tallest buildings in New York, some 1,350 in the air and then proceeded to walk between these buildings eight times. And he didn’t just walk on this wire: he danced, he hopped, he knelt down on one knee and saluted the crowd below and, at one jaw-dropping moment, he laid down and stared up into the sky. The entire act took him 45 minutes and he did it all while holding a 26 foot long, 55 pound pole for balance.

Of course, thank god, there are pictures.

Here is Petite getting ready to start his walk.

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Taking his first steps.

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Fully committed now.

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And here he is lying down.

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Even by today’s standards, this remains an epic achievement. And for someone who gets woozy standing on a ladder while changing a light bulb, this is an incomprehensible act to me; it simply isn’t something in my arsenal of crazy. Which raises the question of why he did it. Petit’s explanation: “To me, it’s really so simple: life should be lived on the edge. You have to exercise rebellion, to refuse to tape yourself to the rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge. Then you will live your life on the tightrope.” Whether you consider it brave or stupid, Petit’s fearless artistic expression is something any writer can admire.

There have been many books and movies made about Petite’s famous walk, including the Academy Award winning documentary Man on Wire (2008) and the recently released Robert Zemeckis film, The Walk, which is in theaters now.

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