Philippe Petit is a Renaissance man, accomplished in arts that range from wire-walking to drawing; the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary; and a face recognized by most New Yorkers. Among his achievements, one feat stands as the greatest: on August 7, 1974, Petit rigged a wire between the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center and walked back and forth, suspended on the abyss beneath the world's tallest buildings, eight times before surrendering to the police.
Petit, who turned on that day from an unknown into a hero, would go on to a distinguished career as multi-talented artist. The towers he had conquered, brand new at the time of his walk, would endure for the better part of three decades, until a day in 2001, exactly eleven years ago today. By then, the giant twins of downtown Manhattan had lost the crown of the tallest skyscrapers, but they still dominated the sky over the world's commercial capital -- and that was why they fell, brought down by men who hated what they stood for.
A new skyscraper is soaring in their place, now mere months from completion. One World Trade Center will be taller than the twin towers, but Petit -- an early advocate of rebuilding them exactly as they were -- isn't swayed. "Nothing could replace the towers that we have lost," he said on the phone from Ashokan, the town in upstate New York where he lives with his partner, and manager, Kathy O'Donnell. He wanted them, in fact, to be even grander copies of the ones that were destroyed: "I am still unhappy that they have not been rebuilt the same, or even higher, more majestic."
Not that he doesn't like the new building, still rising to its final goal of 1,776 feet. "I love that it is getting higher and higher," he said, explaining that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the tower's owner, has invited him to visit the site. But, he added, "I cannot judge a building in the making." Still, what he thinks -- perhaps because a lone tower does not lend itself to high-wire walking -- is clear: "The shape is majestic and it evokes great strength. But nothing can replace them."
That visit to the new tower will have to wait for a hole in Petit's packed schedule. The man who walked a quarter of a mile above the earth is still very busy with his multiple occupations as writer, actor, juggler, draftsman, builder, and yes, wire walker (he practices three hours a day, either at home or at the cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, where he has been artist in residence for decades.)
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He is currently at work, among other things, on Why Knot?, a book on knots -- he is an expert -- for the New York publisher Abrams; planning a wire walk between the moais of Easter Island; rehearsing a new show, High Wire Variations, with a pianist and an actor reading texts by Petit, who will be walking on the wire indoors using equipment he designed himself; and a graphic novel on the World Trade Center walk. In other words, "my regular life," said the indefatigable Petit, who shot to worldwide fame in 2008 when Man on Wire won the Academy Award for best documentary.
Normal people, who haven't accomplished a tenth of what Petit has done in his 62 years, might ask him what he does for a living. A full answer "would be much too long and would give the feeling that I am a total amateur. How could someone do all these things and do them well?" That's why he sometimes tells people that he is "a pickpocket and a street juggler." He does it for the shock value, he said. In fact, "I have only one profession: craftsman and artist."
For all his accomplishments, Petit -- a man whom his friend Robin Williams once compared to Leonardo da Vinci -- has still one major wire-walking exploit that has eluded him. He's been trying to walk the Grand Canyon, an enormously complex undertaking: "In the past twenty years that story has been beautiful and disastrous. We have had to give up twice," he recalled, as backers (he refuses corporate sponsorship) pulled out. To revive the project "would take lots of money and time. It would be a lot of work, but nothing is impossible."
That feat, if it ever happened, would make even the World Trade Center walk seem like a trifle. In the meantime, like the city he captivated in 1974, Philippe Petit has moved on to new adventures. But, just like New York, he lives in the enduring shadow of two towers that are no longer there.