Tete-a-Tete with the Flying Frenchman Who Once Walked between the Twin Towers
Born in France on August 13, 1949, Philippe Petit fell in love with magic and juggling at an early age. Not much of a student, he was expelled from five different schools and ended up teaching himself everything. Consequently, he became adept at horseback riding, fencing, pantomime, carpentry, rock-climbing, drawing, and even bullfighting.
Supporting himself by performing on the sidewalks of Paris, he developed a wild, witty and silent street persona, character traits which continue to beguile all who encounter him to this day. And because his travels took him around the world, Philippe also learned numerous languages, including Spanish, German, Russian and English. Plus, he developed a deep appreciation of architecture and engineering.
Over the years, his interests extended into the realms of theater, music, writing, poetry, drawing and filmmaking, although he will forever be remembered as the intrepid high-wire artist who at 24 years of age pulled off the death-defying feat of the millennium when he went on a walk between the Twin Towers at 1368 feet in the air, and without the benefit of a harness or formal training.
Here, Philippe talks about Man on Wire, a breathtaking documentary revisiting the events of the morning of August 7, 1974, the historic day that he stepped off the roof of the World Trade Center, and proceeded to entertain New York City in the sky for the next 40 minutes.
KW: Hi Philippe, I feel honored to be speaking with you. Thanks for the time.
PP: You’re welcome.
KW: What ever possessed you to attempt to walk between the Twin Towers?
PP: I was 18, and had taught myself the year before to walk on the high wire. So, I was looking for an incredibly beautiful place to impose, without permission, my theatrical aerial performance. Then, when I discovered in a newspaper that the Towers would be built one day, and saw a picture of a model, I immediately thought that’s the best place to perform on a wire. And that’s how the dream started.
KW: Were you at all formally-trained in tightrope-walking?
PP: No, no, I learned on my own, because I was not born in the circus or from that world. I taught myself at around 16 or 17 which was a very late age.
KW: Were any of your friends telling you not to do it?
PP: No, to the contrary, my real friends were encouraging me, which is what close friends should do.
KW: But you would be taking your life in your hands!
PP: No, I was not taking my life in my hands. I was very careful with the rigging of the wire and careful to use all my knowledge of wire-walking, which, in retrospect, was limited at the time. But I would never have risked my life.
KW: I find that surprising. So, you never felt that you were risking your life by walking illegally between the roofs of the Twin Towers?
PP: No, I never risked my life, and I think it’s disgusting to risk your life. Life is something very precious and very beautiful, so I have no respect for people who risk their lives.
KW: Obviously you don’t have a fear of heights, or walking a thousand feet in the air without a net or a harness. Is there anything you do have a fear of, like spiders?
PP: Exactly, spiders! You said it!
KW: Lucky guess. Did you plan ahead of time to try to profit from your walk between the Towers?
PP: No, I didn’t plan to ahead of time, and I actually didn’t try to afterwards either. I said no to all the endorsements and TV commercials proposed to me, and to all the movies and book deals offered to me, although I could have become very rich and famous two hours after my walk. But I said no to every offer.
KW: Why was that? Were you a hippie or a bohemian?
PP: No, I was just an artist who knew what he wanted to do. I never wanted to use my art to sell beer or a pair of sports shoes. So, it was very easy for me to say no. And plus, my goals in life are not to see a bunch of money grow bigger. I never had any money in my life, so it was very simple to say no to lots of dollars.
KW: Then what would you say you did value in life?
PP: My goals in life at the time were the same as they are today. I am fighting for my visions in many fields. This means not only on the high wire, but as a moviemaker, as a writer, as a lecturer, as a street juggler – I continue to try to do what I think is meaningful and beautiful to do. It is very difficult for an artist to create. But I’m trying to do that, and that’s what goals are. To continue to express myself and hope that it will inspire people.
KW: I heard that you’re building your own home up in Woodstock, New York.
PP: No, I am building a barn. It is already up, but it’s not finished. I have a few windows and a few details to complete. I built it over many years using the tools and the methods of the 18th Century.
KW: Have you seen that TV show on PBS where they build things using old tools?
PP: I wouldn’t know. I don’t have a television.
KW: Wow! You don’t watch TV?
KW: How do you think you’re different because of that?
PP: Well, I am not trying to be different, but I have so many passions that I do not wish to spend five hours a day watching a little screen that has nothing interesting to offer me. I look at life instead. I read, I perform, I progress in my art, I travel and look, and that is much better than looking at a little screen where everything is distorted and silly and inhuman. [Laughs] I don’t know – I don’t watch TV. I never did. It’s not a part of my life, but that comes naturally, not as a conscious choice. At the same time, I love to travel.
KW: I heard that you slipped the watch off a police officer and pocketed it as he arrested you, and that you felt the most dangerous moment came not during but after your Twin Towers walk when a cop knocked you down a flight of stairs with your hands bound behind your back.
PP: That’s true.
KW: How did you feel seeing the Twin Towers collapse on 9-11?
PP: I felt eviscerated –
KW: Today, would you describe yourself as happy?
PP: Well, it’s a mix. I devour life with an impetuous joy, and I’m trying to be happy. But I am sometimes very unhappy, because many things don’t go the way I want, and I am very critical of my own work. It would be great to go through life always happy, but it’s probably better to have a shifting. That’s more life-like. So, I am not perpetually happy, but I am a joyful energy of living, and that is with me all the time.
KW: Bookworm Troy Johnson wants to know, what was the last book you read?
PP: The last book was Paperboy by Petroski. It’s about his childhood, when he was distributing newspapers on a bicycle. It wasn’t my favorite book, but you asked, what was the most recent book I read.
KW: Who is Petroski?
PP: Henry Petroski is an engineer who writes about very simple things. For instance, he wrote an entire book about the pencil.
KW: Is there any question no reporter ever asks you that you wished someone would ask?
PP: Yes, basically the questions that I am asked reveal the point of view of the interviewer, like when you asked me what it was like to risk my life. But I would like to be asked why I do what I do, or what advice I would give to someone who wanted to learn how to walk on a high-wire. That would enable me to go into my own world.
KW: Okay, what advice I would give to someone who wanted to learn how to walk on a high-wire or do something that I might find dangerous?
PP: Oh, so you couldn’t come up with your own question. I think you have to know yourself, instead of imposing standards you want to conquer upon yourself. It’s like somebody building a barn with hand-tools. You can not just grab the tools and start working. You have to understand the tools, and learn how to sharpen them and how to hold them correctly. All that is almost a humble way of starting to understand the media that you have settled on. So, if you wanted to be a wire-walker, I would start by learning about ropes, cables and rigging on your own. You don’t have to wait to find teachers.
KW: I would guess that to walk between the Twin Towers, you’d have to be a very spiritual person. Are you very spiritual?
PP: Off the top of my head I would say, “Yes, of course, I’m a spiritual person.” I believe in the human spirit and that it takes a kind of complex chemistry to do something beautiful and with passion. But I don’t know what your definition of spiritual is.
KW: Do you appreciate the fact that in walking between the Twin Towers you did something unique that no one else on Earth will ever duplicate?
PP: Yes, I am able to do that. And in watching the movie about it I am able to go back to that time and to relive the adventure and how I felt at that time.
KW: When I watched Man on Wire, it made me cry.
PP: Oh, that’s beautiful! That’s a compliment!
KW: I didn’t expect it to be so moving, between your death-defying feat, and the fact that the Towers are now gone.
PP: Yes, many people have that reaction, and say that it inspired them. That’s a very nice compliment.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
PP: I don’t have any desire to be remembered. I don’t care at all. I just hope that my books will be read and my films will be seen, that my art will inspire people, and that people will remember that I used the high wire in a very different way than it had been used for thousands of years in the circus. But I don’t have any desire to be remembered one way or the other. I’m not working towards immortality.
KW: What are you working on now?
PP: I have a feature film in the making – I continue to perform on the high wire and as a street juggler – I continue to give lectures about creativity around the world – I continue to do magic – I continue to build with wood – I continue to travel – It’s non-stop.
KW: So, you’re still a street performer?
PP: Well, it was my first love, and as you see in the film it was part of the adventure. That’s how I supported myself at the time. And I continued to street juggle. I’ve never stopped. I draw a circle of chalk on the sidewalk somewhere in the city, and I start performing. I’m completely silent. I have this comic character that doesn’t speak. I chuckle and play with the people, and in the end I pass my hat, and then I disappear on my unicycle before the police can catch me.
PP: One of my dreams is to make a documentary of my performing on the street in Russia, China, India and other countries around the world.
KW: You were born in France, but you’ve lived in the U.S. for many years now. Do you feel American, French, or both?
PP: I really don’t feel French at all, and I really don’t feel American. No, I feel like I belong to no flag. I really feel that I am a citizen of the world.
KW: That makes me think of an eco-friendly T-shirt I saw recently which read: Planet Earth: Love It or Leave It!
PP: That’s great!
KW: Well, thanks again for the interview and for having captured the world’s imagination and for having somehow humanized the World Trade Center with your historic spacewalk.
PP: Thank you, bye.