The Luncheon Society—San Francisco/ Philippe Petit and the World Trade Center walk and his book, “Why Knot”/April 22, 2013/Palio d’Asti


Philippe PetitWhile so many of our Luncheon Society gatherings address serious subjects, this one was a blast.  Philippe Petit had a new book out called “Why Knot,” a playful book on the creation of knots.   Petit might come out with the “Yellow Pages,”  but everybody still wants to talk about what happened during the summer of  1974, when Petit and his team of Frenchmen  climbed the tower and then he began his famous tightrope walk

However, when you think about it knots played an important role in keeping him alive.  The tightrope was shot from one tower to the other by bow-and-arrow and then carefully tied down to ensure that he would not fall 110 stories to his death.  His action added a special poignancy now that both towers were destroyed in the 9.11 attacks.

His book “Man on Wire” is a riot to read.  The book, which became an Academy Award winning documentary, detailed Petit’s extraordinary journey from a dental office in Paris to the chasm between both Towers.  It was capped off with a surprise by Petit himself at the Oscar telecast.

There is a new movie arriving in the fall of 2015, directed by Robert Zemeckis, which Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the title role.  It will be one of those “tent-pole movies that will hit the theaters this October.

One funny story.  On the day Petit walked, it was a foggy day and it was very hard to see him from the ground.  His girlfriend stood on the streets below “ginning” up interest by pointing into the sky to a very faint and blurry figure 110 stories up.

Petit remains a playful; artist who delighted us with stories of the how he achieved the unbelievable and how the right knots made it happen.  Over lunch he balanced forks, spoons, and plates on his forehead. However, below that playful artistry is somebody who takes his craft deadly seriously.

From the PBS The American Experience “Tightrope Between the Towers.”  It came in the summer of 1974, while the still-unfinished (and largely unrented) towers were courting financial disaster and facing a barrage of architectural and social criticism. In the course of a single morning, the unexpected — and illegal — actions of a daring young Frenchman and a few of his confederates would do more to change public opinion about the troubled billion-dollar project than anything else in its first years of existence.

Inspiration. The episode originated six years earlier, in 1968, when an 18-year-old street performer named Philippe Petit, waiting in a dentist’s office in Paris with a toothache, came across an article about the twin towers, along with an illustration of the project in model form. Suddenly, a daring, almost inconceivable thought came into his head.

Romantic Calling. “They called me,” he later explained. “I didn’t choose them. Anything that is giant and manmade strikes me in an awesome way and calls me. I could secretly put my wire between the highest towers in the world. It was something that had to be done, and I couldn’t explain it… it was a calling of the romantic type.”

A Dream Is Born. Feigning a sneeze, Petit ripped the page from the newspaper and hastily left the office, prolonging his dental agony for several more days. “But what was it to have a toothache for another week,” he later recalled, “when what I had now in my chest was a dream?”

In Training. For the next six years, Petit patiently nurtured his dream, perfecting his skills as a high-wire artist and learning everything he could about the World Trade Center. In January 1974, now 24 years old, he flew to New York City for the first time in his life to put his daring plan into action. After months scouting the towers, including posing as a journalist to interview Port Authority executive Guy Tozzoli, he set to work on the evening of Tuesday, August 6. While one group of colleagues made its way up the north tower, Petit and two friends slipped up to the top of the south tower, carrying their concealed equipment, including a disassembled balancing pole, wire for rigging, 250 feet of one-inch braided steel cable, and a bow and arrow.

Stepping Into the Void. It took all night to complete the rigging, securing the steel cable a quarter of a mile in the sky across the 130-foot gap separating the towers. Wall Street was just beginning to come to life when, at a little past seven on the morning of August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit stepped onto the wire stretched out across the void.

Spellbinding. On the street below, people stopped in their tracks — first by the tens, then by the hundreds and thousands — staring up in wonder and disbelief at the tiny figure walking on air between the towers. Sgt. Charles Daniels of the Port Authority Police Department, dispatched to the roof to bring Petit down, looked on in helpless amazement.

“I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’ — because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’ — approximately halfway between the two towers,” he later reported. “And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire. And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle… He was bouncing up and down… His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again… Unbelievable really… [E]verybody was spellbound in the watching of it.”

“Sentenced” To the delight of the Port Authority, the exploit made front-page news around the world, and Petit himself became an instant folk hero.

Thanks to the immense outpouring of public adulation for his performance, all formal charges against him were dropped, and the 24 year old was “sentenced” to perform his high-wire act for a group of children in Central Park.

Lifetime Pass. Soon after his walk, the Port Authority presented him with a free lifetime pass to the observation deck atop the south tower — where he was asked to sign his name on a steel beam overlooking the vast canyon where he had danced among the clouds. In the years to come, he would often return to the breathtaking perch where he had captured the attention of the entire world, and, in the space of just 45 minutes, accomplished a seemingly impossible feat: making two of the tallest, largest and most imposing structures in the world seem suddenly endearing and friendly.

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