On August 7, 1974: French tightrope artist Philippe Petit performed an unauthorised high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. Maxwell Macleod – who met with him – reflects on risk and life and death.
I think I am drawn to writing this essay because we are all at such a risk from Covid. I have to admit I’m quite frightened. I am old, 68, pre-diabetic and have had a heart attack. If I get it I don’t think I will survive. And I may well get it.
This has made me think of people who don’t take death too seriously and in particular Philippe Petit the world famous tight-rope walker, famed for his walk between the two world trade towers in the 1970s , with whom I spent a few hours in the nineties. Philippe seemed addicted to danger, telling me he was only slightly more frightened of not living than he was of dying. He obviously relished fear, but not in a crazy way rather in a sensible, down to earth way. He didn’t think he was in danger of passing on, or moving to another place. He thought he was in danger of dying and liked to face down the fear. I remember I once told him of the monks who used to carry a small skull on their belts to remind themselves that they would one day die.
He had laughed at this and said that he carried his own skull in his skull.
I find my memories of him most encouraging. Maybe I have massaged the truth to meet some awful needs. I don’t think so, but it is possible. Desperation makes us remake our memories to fill pot holes in our sanity. One day I will find him again and check my copy with him.
And so to my story.
I have recently described in another story how I was placed in an alarming situation in the Harlem based Cathedral Church of St John the Devine when the Vicar kindly lent me his dinner jacket and when I was trying it on in his walk-in wardrobe his wife arrived in the adjacent room and commenced to disrobe. I thought she was going to shoot me. It was really quite scary.
I ended my tale by saying that the one good thing that came out of the incident was that as a result of that I encounter I was to then meet, almost immediately, my hero the world famous tight rope walker Phillip Petit.
Let me quickly add that the meeting had nothing to do with any skills or abilities of mine , indeed it was to the contrary as I had earlier approached the Vicar of the Cathedral , who was an old friend of my Father’s and had asked for help as I had found myself entirely out of my depth on a story I was writing about the homeless in New York. His response to my cry for help had been, I think probably, to sit me down at the dinner next to Phillipe who is something of an expert on the homeless, as he himself often used to go out and mix with them , just as I myself had been doing.
The Vicar, who is sadly dead now,. had also arranged for me to be taken on a walk through some of the key places in the city under the supervision of a major drugs dealer who was working with the church trying to clean up his life. After that I was able to walk pretty much anywhere I liked in the area near the Cathedral. My guide was evidently someone not worth crossing. Some Vicars are more street wise than others.
So, the loan of the dinner jacket, Philippe and a supervised walk. I was grateful to the Vicar, my request for help had been most kindly responded to.
My initial meeting with Phillipe was more than a little bizarre. I had come, all sweaty and bothered from my encounter with the half naked Vicar’s wife and been plonked down beside him at the top table. I was evidently using the returned ticket from major benefactor. I never did work out whether my benefactor was down to sit beside Philippe or maybe the Vicar had placed me there to glean Phillippe for advice. It was of little consequence either way.
I hadn’t a clue. I didn’t care. I was almost delirious with fear and confusion. I must have looked a terrible sight as my host’s dinner jacket was so large that I could almost turn round in it and face the other direction and the jacket would have continued walking the other way, my face was puce, I was sweating. I was a mess both mentally and sartorially.
Phillipe was quick to notice my state and poured me water and asked what the matter was and I quickly gushed out my story of how I had thought I was going to be shot by a semi-naked vicar’s wife and how in the last hour my life had changed from living on the street to being sitting next door to Phillpe Petit in front of half a lobster at a thousand dollar a head dinner with only a terrifying experience in between the two lifestyles and my mind was finding it hard to keep up.
At this he laughed so much I worried for him and he poured me more water and asked me to explain the hour I had just lived in exact detail, and I suddenly realised I was having the time of my life. I did as he wished, and we were soon temporary pals.
It was no surprise that we got on so well. We were both of much the same age, both Europeans and both angered by how many poor people were being forced to live on the streets of a city filled with the disgustingly rich. Neither of us really wanted to be at that table. It disgusted us. We both had this weird and dysfunctional need to be in uncomfortable situations and sitting dressed as penguins talking mostly rubbish to the happily bland didn’t really work for either of us.
Yet in another way I was just thrilled to be there, I knew all about him, he was a hero of mine, indeed if there was one person on the planet that I would have chosen to sit next door to at a dinner it was him, and here he was killing himself with laughter at my ridiculous tale. I started to feel better by the minute.
But he was far from frivolous and once I was settled went straight into asking me why I had chosen to sleep on the street, he didn’t buy the stuff about me being a journalist on a story and wanted to know the real stuff about what rat I was feeding in undertaking such frankly ridiculous behaviour. He poured me wine , asked for the real story.
Who was I trying to impress? The Vicar had told him I had been getting myself into scrapes and needed help. What was the score?
Now to be asked by a man who had once spent forty five minutes balancing on a two inch wide wire twelve hundred feet above the pavement as he walked eight times between the world trade towers why I was foolish enough to take a risk was as good an opening to any interview I had ever had and my response was to take out my notebook and pen just to let him know I was on duty and he had laughed and said he would be happy to not only give me an interview but also have lunch with me the following day as he had duties here. Then he flicked his head at the gaggle of guests all around him who had obviously paid their thousand bucks to meet the great man and were none too pleased that he was giving his attention to the awful looking red faced man in the ill fitting jacket whose forehead was covered with sweat.
And so we lunched the next day in the scrubby wee café next door to the cathedral. In the interim I had returned to sleep at my bolt hole in the WMCA no longer giving a damn about the homeless of New York and sick with excitement at the prospect of my lunch date with my hero.
Philippe was every bit as fascinating as I had hoped. First he took me to his office, a tiny wee cell clinging like a bat high up in the Gods of the Cathedral, packed to the gunnels with charismatic coils of his walking wires and I became aware for the first time of the intimacy of the relationship between a tight rope walker and his or her wire. It was obvious when you think about it. He had to be sure that there wasn’t a tiny blob of grease or rust on any inch of that wire that his slippered foot would slip on, and given that many wires have a centralised fibre core that leaks oil into the wire this is no small task.
It was an austere place, all stone and dust, but dominated by the steely presence of the wire and yet made somehow elegant and sacred by the beauty of it’s location, only inches from the huge drop into the echoing magnificence of the cathedral, it was like a chapel to his work and his flirtations with death and it thrilled me.
I could have stayed there all day listening to Philippe opening up on the subject of risk and why he did what he did and how he liked to sometimes go and live on the streets with the tramps to sharpen himself away from the silly softness of his life as a celebrity.
I write a column for an arts magazine and so I asked him about what it meant to him to be an artist and how much it was all about a battle with himself and how much showing off to his audience. Far from being embarrassed at my impertinent question he seemed to relish it. Indeed I had the impression that it was his favourite subject.
In reply he said that on the world trade tower walk he had made several salutes to his audience far below, and one to himself. He was, and is, a delightful man.
And then , God bless him, he quite shook me by saying that in his trade it was inevitable that you imagine falling off the wire and that he sometimes wondered if he would be able to keep his nerve enough as an artist to do something artistic for the crowd as he tumbled to his death , maybe a salute to them, which would be combined salute to himself. Twelve hundred feet is a long drop, he would have had several seconds to perform.
I have often thought of that remark. Imagine how it would had affected the millions who would have seen news film of him making that final artistic gesture to the crowd. Maybe a farewell wave of his hand, a salute, a twist.
It would have been hard, but what a way to end a career as an artist. This was obviously a deeply spiritual man. I told him that I myself spent much of my time on a small island, Iona, which was a wonderful place for reflection and that if he was ever in Scotland I would take him there in response to his kindness to me the previous night and on that day.
Years later when the towers were destroyed by the crashing planes, one of those who jumped to her death was a woman who was believed by many to have held her skirts down out of modesty. If she did it was surely a remarkable thing for the poor woman, but it would have been a different sort of gesture to Philippe’s intention. Or would it?
I do wonder how Philippe’s wave would have affected people, how it would have changed them for ever as they looked into their own futures, their own deaths, and wondered if they could make an artistic statement never mind at their last few moments but in their very lives.
After our visit to his office we went to the cafe nearby, It was a scruffy place. I think we had onion soup and red wine. I have no real memory But I do remember the conversation wasn’t nearly so good in the cafe as it had been in the office. Over lunch he was surrounded by admiring waiters and other customers. I don’t remember much about it. I remember him leaping up and pretending he was walking a wire as he walked on the cracks between the grey floor tiles and everybody laughing. I felt sorry for him, just as I usually do for celebrities.
Some years later I was in New York again, this time writing about how Mayor Giuliani was making life tough for the street dwellers and once again I felt frightened and out of my depth.
The day before one of the tramps had murdered a young woman as she crossed the road and the police were chasing the pan-handlers with no mercy. One again I was frightened and out of my depth and wanted to seek sanctuary in the Cathedral.
I had really enjoyed my time with Philippe and I phoned him on his mobile, I deluded myself that we were almost friends and was saddened when he didn’t recognise my name. Then I told him about the dinner and the naked Vicar’s wife and he had at least pretended to remember and laughed.
Then there was a pause, a long pause, and he asked if I could do him a favour.
I think he said he had had a child who had just died, I think she was a young girl. It was all so long ago that I don’t remember the details, but I do remember his request. He hadn’t been on the wire for a long time , but wanted to go to his practice gymnasium . Would I mind terribly sitting below the wire just in case he fell. It was a low wire, he would probably just break a few bones if he fell , but it would be nice to have someone there to call an ambulance. I was tempted to ask why he did it. He had never really told me.
And so I sat for a couple of hours in an otherwise empty gymnasium watching Philippe practicing. I remember he had an umbrella and a pole. I don’t think he asked me there because I was his friend, I think he asked me because I wasn’t. He never said anything else about the child and I never asked.
When he came down we talked some nonsense, but now it was he who was red faced and sweaty and in a state and I was anxious to leave him be and give him some peace. Then to my astonishment out of his briefcase he took a copy of a book about himself which he gave me as a thank you for my time, I have it yet.
It is signed; “To Maxwell, who also lives on an island”
I hear he now lives in a barn near New York that he built with his own hands. I believe it.
My memory of him gives me courage in these dark days, though luckily for me I am still more frightened of dying than not living.