Philippe Petit, a 21-year-old professional tightrope walker, was living in Paris when he decided to execute his first major performance at Notre Dame on June 26, 1971. He crossed between the two towers of the cathedral, taking a break to casually lie down on the wire and juggle several clubs. He was arrested thereafter, but Petit was hooked on the thrill and knew that the walk at Notre Dame wouldn’t be his last.
Several decades after Notre Dame, Petit strung up his wires to another famous Parisian landmark: the Eiffel Tower. But he wasn’t arrested this time because the stunt was commissioned by the mayor of Paris to celebrate the 200th anniversary of The Declaration of the Rights of Man.
At an early age, Petit discovered magic and juggling. He loved to climb, and at 16, he took his first steps on a tightrope wire. He told a reporter,
“Within one year, I taught myself to do all the things you could do on a wire. I learned the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair on the wire, jumping through hoops. But I thought, “What is the big deal here? It looks almost ugly.” So I started to discard those tricks and to reinvent my art.”
Petit became known to New Yorkers in the early 1970s for his frequent tightrope-walking performances and magic shows in the city parks, especially Washington Square Park. Petit’s most famous performance was in August 1974, conducted on a wire between the roofs of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, a quarter mile above the ground.