“Man on Wire” Star Philippe Petit Wows a Crowd in DC

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He brought his gravity-defying skills to the National Building Museum.

Petit at the Building Museum. Photo by Evy Mages

The screams of hundreds of schoolchildren ring through the atrium of the National Building Museum. “Ahhhhh!” they cry, waving their hands in the air at the adult emcee who’s babbling like an auctioneer before them. She’s getting them hyped to see Philippe Petit—the famed wirewalker who, in 1974, illegally traversed the sky between the Twin Towers in Manhattan. Now 73, Petit is about to walk a wire strung across this grand, colonnaded room. 

At last night’s performance, before a room of swank-dressed adults, the scene was reportedly quiet. The dinner dishes were cleared before Petit’s walk, lest a clanking glass distract him. Phones were not allowed. But today’s conditions aren’t so favorable. When children are excited, they chatter, they shout, they wave their arms, they fidget. What if one distracts Petit? What if he falls? Well, then scores of DC schoolchildren will witness either the grievous injury or the graphic death of this impish, grandfatherly man. 

But actually, that’s unlikely—today’s feat is a slow walk in the park for Petit. The wire is approximately 1,300 feet lower than the top of the Twin Towers, and there’s no wind or weather to fight. It was rigged professionally (not secretly in the dead of the night), and no cops will threaten to pluck him with a helicopter or cut his rope. But assuming he succeeds, then what? Will the schoolchildren believe that they, too, can attempt extreme physical feats with impunity? Warily, I think of the hours I’ve spent trying to keep my son in the lower branches of trees.

The emcee settles the children, then Petit appears in the balcony wearing a white button-down and a colorful striped vest. He’s flanked by two young children who were apparently inspired by his book about the Twin Towers and became wirewalkers in their garden at home. The girls wrote him a fan letter, so he drove to DC to visit them. He tells the crowd that his message is, “Do not give up in front of adversity. Believe that anything is possible.” 

When Petit steps out onto the wire, 400 or so schoolchildren are below him on the carpet. They’re rapt—sitting in perfect silence, while pointing at Petit and grasping each others’ arms. Flute music pipes through the speakers as he walks the wire slowly, methodically, his slippered feet almost sliding against it. Halfway through his first pass, he tosses a few handfuls of gold glitter into the air. 

Petit is focused and rigorous, but not joyless—he’ll sometimes do a theatrical step, a dancerly gesture. During another pass, he sits casually astride the wire and then, at his signal, the fountain below spurts to life, flinging water 30 feet in the air. The schoolchildren gasp and applaud. 

The performance is over in a blink—three passes, maybe 20 minutes of walking. It’s odd, I guess. This is not the feral act of unfurling a wire between the tallest buildings in the world, or between the spires of Notre Dame or the pylons of the Sydney Harbour bridge, then being hauled to the police station, to the psych ward, then onto the ecstatic streets. It’s different encountering Petit in a museum. It’s not disappointing, but it’s tame.

As the children file out, I think about what he’s told them—that they should believe that anything is possible, that they, too, can chase a crazy dream. That’s surely age-appropriate, but it seems incomplete. When Petit was 24, he achieved his grandest ambition: He walked the Towers and became a global sensation. I wonder how he survived it—not the walk itself, but all that came after. How do you cheat death, flout the logic of the world, then submit to paying taxes, the disrepair of the body, standing in lines?

Paul Auster writes of Petit that, “Working under the greatest possible constraints, on a stage no more than an inch wide, the high-wire walker’s job is to create a sensation of limitless freedom.” That feels right. It’s a magic trick, on the wire and in life, to create freedom from constraints. It’s not that anything is possible—were that true, a highwire act wouldn’t be remarkable at all. But for Petit, constraints are propulsive and gorgeous. Watching him, it seems that brushing against hard limits—gravity, balance, death—is sublime.

Sylvie McNamara

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