39 years ago today, on August 7, 1974, street performer Philippe Petit traversed a tightrope between the Twin Towers in what many later called the “artistic crime of the century.” With no safety harness or net, the Frenchman spent 45 minutes in the air making eight crossings and dancing and jumping on the wire. The stunt transformed Petit into an overnight celebrity and inspired the novel Let the Great World Spin and the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire.
The “crime” was six years in the making, and Petit dreamt it before the towers were even completed. The night before his walk, Petit and a few friends snuck up the north and south towers to set up the 131-foot-long tightrope 1,350 feet in the air. He took his first steps onto the rope just after 7:15 a.m. Though he was arrested immediately after, all charges were dropped. After all, Petit had brought valuable publicity to the towers, and for his efforts, he was given a lifetime pass to the observation deck.
The spotlight wasn’t Petit’s main motivation; in fact, he didn’t really have a motivation for his stunt. “If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk,” he told the crowd after.
In Becky Cooper’s new book, Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, Petit remembers his “35 years as a New Yorker in three steps:” his first Manhattan apartment at 59 East 76th Street, his famous World Trade Center Walk and taking the position of artist-in-residence of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in 1980. Since his famous 1974 crossing, he’s also scaled ropes over Niagara Falls and the Eiffel Tower. Petit still lives in New York, so keep your eyes peeled in case inspiration strikes him again.
Get in touch with the author @catku.