Vanessa Neumann meets Philippe Petit — twinkle-toed titan of the tightrope, unreconstructed rebel and barn-building DIY superstar
I WAS STAR-STRUCK, I admit. When his assistant asked, ‘Can you get here in twenty minutes?’ I grabbed my tape recorder and a coffee, jumped into a taxi and sped to New York’s Soho House and waited for him at a small table by the bar, though it was only 10.15am.
Philippe Petit, the French high-wire walker who danced on a rope between the Twin Towers on 7 August 1974 to the awestruck amazement of all who saw him (including the New York policemen who had to arrest him), is as compact and full of defiant energy as you would imagine if you’ve seen Man on Wire. I knew he would be lively and interesting, a keen performer: when he accepted the best documentary Oscar for Man on Wire, Petit made a coin vanish in his hands while thanking the Academy ‘for believing in magic’ and then balanced the Oscar by its head on his chin to cheers from the audience; I had seen him jump around the stage during his lecture at the previous day’s Courage Forum at the Museum of Modern Art.
But our interview was off to a bad start: he wasn’t there when I arrived and had to be coaxed from his room, and then, upon arrival, immediately asked me whether I thought this might take more than fifteen minutes because he didn’t want to spend too much time on it. The interview would last as long as he liked, I reassured him.
Petit is a man of very strong likes and dislikes, and he will not compromise. After his Twin Towers stunt landed him on the front page of every newspaper on Earth, both women and corporate endorsements threw themselves at his feet. He took the women, rejected the endorsements: a point of which he is quite proud.
‘When I have a lot of money, I love it. I give it to my friends; I buy cigars and wines and rope, and when I have no money, I can survive like a rat on bread and water. I don’t care. That’s what life is. It is not my aim in life to have a little box where seeds grow and become richer. I could have become a millionaire, a billionaire, after the World Trade Center, by endorsing all the products, and I said no to all the offers.’
I asked him why. ‘You see, I don’t know why. At the time, and still today, my life is founded on rebellion. I’m being true to myself and I’m breaking the rules and I’m turning my back on authority. They said, “We want you to walk on a wire with a Coca-Cola T-shirt,” and they start adding zeroes to the cheque, and I became angry.
The street juggler in me wants to punch them in the nose and run away with my unicycle.They will never sell or buy my soul, these people. The more they add to the cheque, the more angry I become.’
It’s no wonder sponsors want to brand him: his ability to make a splash can make those close to him quite a lot of money — to wit: the World Trade Center itself. At the time of his walk, the Twin Towers had been widely considered an eyesore and the landlords had struggled to fill the office space. After Petit’s historic feat, the World Trade Center gained an iconic status and grew in the affection of all New Yorkers, and the space was filled.
REBELLION IS IN Petit’s blood and seems to have started as a push against his army father. Born in Nemours on 13 August 1949, Petit had been kicked out of five schools by the time he was fifteen, when he left home and hitchhiked his way to Russia to join the Moscow Circus School, but ‘of course that didn’t work’, he says. So he stayed in Russia and became a street juggler, falling in love with the country and its people. This was 1965, in the depths of Soviet misery with two-hour queues for food staples, but Petit was deeply happy.
As the interview went on, I started to piece together a very different picture of Petit from the one he was actively presenting me: for all his street-juggling, money-spurning, law-breaking rebellion, he has all the military discipline of his father. ‘I do half an hour of Russian every day just to make sure that it doesn’t go backward.’
It turns out that when he is at his home near Woodstock, in upstate New York, he practises on the high wire for three hours a day and has another high wire in Manhattan, in the synod hall of the Cathedral of St John the Divine, where he has been artist-in-residence for the past 30 years. Now his eighth book is about to be published. The topic? On how he spent nine years building a barn on his property to house his high-wire equipment.
‘I was driven: at one point I had all this equipment, all this high-wire walking equipment and I need to put them somewhere. I put them in the shed. I thought I would build it in one weekend. Suddenly I looked into sheds and I discovered the noble history of the barn. How the people from Europe came to America with their tools and started building barns, and then, I don’t know why, I got caught up in the 18th-century time, which is when in America these foreigners build barns.’
Touring commitments meant it took Petit nine years to build his own barn, using a chisel, a hammer and a saw. He kept a journal of his voyage of discovery as he constructed it, which eventually became a book with 373 drawings by the artist.
Petit’s obsession with old-fashioned process and materials stems from a deep-seated love of life and Gallic sensuality; he prefers the old-fashioned hand-saw to a modern chainsaw, because the former allows him to hear the sound of the wood being cut: ‘It’s the man, the matter and the tool, and it’s a beautiful communion.’ In fact, he often waxes poetic about, well, nearly everything.
‘I love to touch, I love to build things, but I could also go for a high-wire walk. Even if it’s not really needed, I need to build a little model of the high-wire walk with the cathedral and, slowly, the whole system, the whole site comes into my system. I become one with it, maybe because I built it. And I love to take any mechanism and unscrew it and see how it’s working, and take it apart and put it back. This is almost the child in me that has not changed, so there is a kind of childishness, a childlikeness in me that will never go out, and you were asking me about, you know, I like to touch things, to do things with my hands, certainly.
‘BUT IT’S NOT only that, I also like to observe. I could take anybody in this room and write a play about them or make fun of them in some way, which I do in the streets in a silent way… Yes, yes, and the joy of once you have imagined, to put it on paper if you are a writer, or marble if you are a sculptor, or the wire if you’re a wire walker. It’s the joy of creativity and making your dreams come true. But this is the story of my life, when I started very young and also the element of rebellion. I cannot read a list of rules; I will make a paper plane out of it.’
He considers it his mission to bring magic and poetry to his audience. The way he places his foot on the wire — lengthwise, gently, in a prolonged caress before an almost invisible shift in weight — is for him an important component of his artistic integrity: ‘I don’t go for the safest way, I go for the most beautiful way, the way that makes you forget that you are even on a wire, and then it becomes the magic of walking in thin air.’
His fellow countrymen, however, are not spellbound by Petit. His first major walk was at age twenty, on a high wire strung between the two towers of Notre Dame, and his compatriots barely took notice, sending only a single pipsqueak reporter who couldn’t operate his tape recorder and had to redo the interview. Although the French made him a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et Lettres, the highest award that can be granted to a French artist, Petit still feels frustrated by his compatriots. ‘Anyway, what I want is work, I don’t want kudos. I want contracts to work, and I’ve been promised things all my life from the French and it never never works.
‘I am a craftsman; I am an inventor; I am somebody who wants to work and I am someone who fights the entire world to create… What inspires me is the love for the craft. Excellence, talent and dedication. For example, when I see an old artist, old in age, being still young and vibrant in their art, it’s a fabulous lesson. Somebody who has all his or her life followed their passion and is still good and still doing it. I mean, I will die on stage doing it. This is for me a supreme inspiration.’
Clearly. I glanced down at my tape recorder to see we had been speaking for 50 minutes, and he could have easily spoken longer. Indeed, he is a man who can barely stop himself, for death is not his greatest fear.
‘The greatest fear is not knowing who you are, what you are capable of.’ What is his proudest moment? Every time he looks back after a walk and sees how afraid he should have been but wasn’t.
Photography: Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris/eyevine