A group of foreign nationals slips into the World Trade Center, carrying suitcases filled with thousands of pounds of equipment, including cables, ropes, knives, and a bow and arrow. They sneak up 110 stories, set up shop overnight, and in the early overcast morning, commit a crime that grips the city and astounds its citizens.
If Philippe Petit’s infamous 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers sounds like an episode of 24, James Marsh’s new documentary Man on Wire, a festival crowd-pleaser and award winner around the globe, makes it look like a ’70s heist flick.
Incredible for its brash illegality as well as its derring-do, Petit’s high-wire dance a quarter-mile into thin air quickly became a defining piece of Manhattan lore. Now, post-9/11, it offers a nostalgic glimpse into a more innocent time and a retroactive memorial for the towers that are no longer there.
Petit and his co-conspirators all agree that today such a “coup” would be impossible. “The world has changed drastically,” he says. “In big cities, entering a secure building with equipment, I think you’d get shot first and asked questions later.”
The team’s “inside man,” Barry Greenhouse, an assistant director of research for the New York State Insurance Department who offered his ID to make fake credentials and his 82nd-floor office for storing equipment, recalls: “There was, like, no security at all. There was a guy who walked the entire 110 floors three times a year, and I joined him. And nobody ever stopped us.” After Petit’s walk, Greenhouse’s bosses scolded him—not for making their offices complicit in a crime, but for not giving them advance warning of the historic walk. “The cops never ever talked to me,” adds Greenhouse, whose Dalí-esque mustache figures prominently in Marsh’s film.
When he heard of the stunt, World Trade Center president Guy Tozzoli’s first thought wasn’t of a security breach, but a photo op. “I said: ‘Listen, if he doesn’t fall off, don’t arrest him—this is great publicity,’ ” Tozzoli remembers telling the Port Authority Police. Because he ultimately didn’t fall, Tozzoli adds, “Philippe did me a great favor. From that time on, people embraced the towers more than any other time; it made them very human. And we were on the front page of almost every newspaper in the world.”
Indeed, many New Yorkers who witnessed the act remember it—in contrast to the ’77 blackout or the Son of Sam murders—as a welcome diversion from the chaos of the decade.
Matthew Warshaw, a broker for Merrill Lynch who was 14 years old at the time and has since become friends with Petit, remembers watching the high-wire walk from the roof of his apartment on 21st Street and Second Avenue. “I watched the Twin Towers go up,” recalls Warshaw. “At the time, we would go under the towers and feel the immensity of them. And to see a guy have the guts and ability to string a wire between them and walk out there for 45 minutes was way beyond anything I could imagine.”
“This thing of Petit’s was a massive work of art,” recalls David Foreman, a songwriter who stumbled onto the plot and helped bring up the cables on the eve of the stunt. “Bigger than The Gates, in my mind, and certainly more than this waterfall thing. Initially, I thought it would be a tremendous goof, but it was not funny; it was amazing.”
To this day, Petit says, people still thank him for offering them “inspiration,” and for making the towers appear “beautiful.” He adds: “At the time, Nixon was resigning”—the president actually stepped down later on the very same day of Petit’s walk, August 7, 1974—”so it was more than a performance; it was a daring breath of fresh air.”
Unlike today’s New York Times Building climbers or amateur photographers who get roughed up and arrested by the NYPD, Petit’s act was actually welcomed by New York authorities. After an initial violent takedown after he stepped off the wires, the cops asked for his autograph. (Another conspirator, Alan Welner, was taken into police custody, but got off by claiming he was on the roof because he was a Village Voice photographer.) And although Petit was booked for disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing, his initial punishment was just another high-wire walk for some crippled children. Petit, who admits to having a “giant disrespect for the law,” says he ignored this slap on the wrist in favor of a big walk above Central Park’s Belvedere Castle. “I turned the sentence of the court into something illegal as well,” he says with a snigger. (He also turned his instant celebrity into instant gratification: Petit got lucky with a buoyant female fan the morning after being released from police custody.)
While largely lighthearted, Petit’s walk and Marsh’s film take on new meaning post-9/11. Man on Wire never mentions the events of that day, but the Trade Center’s collapse continues to weigh on Petit, as if its destruction was every bit as tragic as the human lives lost that day. “I was shocked,” says Petit, remembering the moment he watched the towers fall. “I felt like something alive was pulled out from me.”