By Jim Jerome
Updated August 26, 1974 12:00 PM
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I was happy,” gushed 25-year-old tightrope artist Philippe Petit. “I was dying of happiness.” One false step, of course, and Petit could have been dying of a more serious ailment. His feat: dancing back and forth for 45 minutes along a steel cable stretched between New York’s World Trade Center towers, 1,350 feet high, while thousands of petrified spectators watched below. But Petit never faltered, and his one-man circus was a succès fou—so fou, in fact, that unamused police arrested him for disorderly conduct-and criminal trespass and sent him to a hospital for mental examination. They learned that Petit is a Paris street acrobat and juggler for whom a stroll 110 stories high is incredibly normal. “I see three oranges,” mused Petit, “I have to juggle. I see two towers, I have to walk.”

The son of a retired French army officer, Petit gained international fame when he pranced a high wire strung between the spires of Notre Dame in Paris in 1971, and then another between the pylons of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge last year. Naturally, he could not resist New York’s World Trade Center, the second tallest building in the world. (The Sears building in Chicago, 1,450 feet high, is the tallest.) For six months, with great cunning, Petit and a few friends plotted and reconnoitered, often eluding building security guards by posing as hard-hatted construction workers or French architectural reporters. Petit made three trips to New York, decided firmly to go up, and sublet an apartment nearby in May. For three days prior to the walk, he and his friends surreptitiously moved their equipment by freight elevators to the top of the towers, spending the last night hidden inside. They fired a crossbow from one tower to the other and dragged the 225-pound, one-inch steel cable across the canyon between the roofs, securing it by guy wires to minimize sway. Petit says proudly: “It was just like a big bank job.”

The stunt was the climax of a career that began at age 15 on not-so-tight ropes strung between trees in his family’s suburban Paris backyard. He learned balancing and juggling so quickly that he quit high school before getting his diploma to master the carnival arts full-time. He later made a pilgrimage to the Loire valley home of the famed Omankowsky acrobatic family, where they were so impressed with Petit’s prowess that they took him in as an honorary member. When he returned to Paris on his own, he began to perform in front of sidewalk cafes, favoring the all-black costume which has become his trademark. In a city with a surplus of hat-passing acts, Petit is considered a genuine street virtuoso, who also performs in exhibitions for up to $2,000 a show. (As “punishment” for his World Trade trespass, a judge ordered him to put on a free show for kids.)

Petit claims he does his daring walks for thrill, not money, while his mother believes they are his way of “dominating his fears.” Petit says his ambition is only to become a popular purist in his field. He resists any comparison between himself and the professional death-defiers like motorcycle jumper Evel Knievel. “The difference is that the other stuff is stunt,” sniffs Petit. “I…am art.”