As a guest of one of the members, my wife and I went to hear Philippe Petit speak at the clubhouse of the Maidstone Club last Sunday night.
This event, overlooking the cabanas, pool and ocean beach with two golf courses directly behind the clubhouse, consisted of a startling contrast. The Maidstone Club is a private golf club that has not changed its conservative traditions in over 100 years. Its clubhouse is a fabulous old building, furnished inside in a comfortable style popular in the 1930s.
Philippe Petit is a small, red-haired Frenchman who, well, let us just report that on Thursday, four days later, he would at 5:30 in the afternoon celebrate the 40th anniversary of the time he walked a tightrope stretched between the twin towers of the World Trade Center—1,350 feet above the city—by walking a tightrope the exact same distance, but not so high up, here in East Hampton at Jack Larsen’s Longhouse on Springy Banks Road.
Philippe spoke with great passion to the nearly 200 people who came to listen to him. He said since he was a boy he had always felt uncomfortable plodding along on the earth, and was just so happy walking along or perching high over it.
He was born and raised in Paris the son of a baron who fought in World War II as a French pilot, got shot down over Germany and put in a concentration camp from which he escaped (a movie called The Great Escape was later made about this event).
“My parents encouraged me in my passion,” he said. “I’d climb a tree. Most parents would say, ‘Get down from there before you hurt yourself.’ My parents would say, ‘Must be very nice up there in that tree,’ And it was. It is so peaceful and beautiful from high up.”
Petit showed slides of himself tightrope walking between the two towers of Notre Dame in Paris. In another, he was tightrope walking from a government building across the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Strangely, he had no video of his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers.
During the dinner that followed Petit’s lecture, I sat with his longtime girlfriend, Kathy O’Donnell, who explained to me why that was.
“He had a photographer atop the South Tower,” he said. “But after Philippe started the walk, the police arrived up at the top and arrested everybody. The crew took video, but their camera was confiscated.”
I also asked her how they had gotten a line between the towers way up there at 1,350 feet.
“I thought they might have had a breeches buoy affair like they used during shipwrecks long ago,” I told her. “On the shore, the rescue service would fire a metal arrow from a cannon. There would be a rope attached to the back and the whole arrangement would arch out over the stricken ship, and those needing rescue would haul it in, tie it to a mast and then come ashore in a chair that would be brought out on a pulley.”
“On top of the World Trade Center,” she told me, “a bow and arrow with a string on the back was shot from the top of one tower to the other. The little string was attached to a bigger string to a little rope to a bigger rope to a bigger rope to one eventually strong enough for Philippe to use on his tightrope walk.”
O’Connell told me that after the walk—there was talk about sending a police helicopter up between the towers, which would have been a disaster with the wind wash—he was arrested, put in handcuffs, and taken to Bellevue Hospital, where a doctor declared him “sane but in need of a drink of water,” then to jail at the Tombs and then, the next morning, released on bail. The city, including the authorities, was delighted with what Petit did, after all. He was sentenced to do magic tricks and juggling in Central Park for the children. He interpreted this to mean that in the park he could tightrope across Turtle Pond from the Belvedere Castle, for the kids.
Much later, he helped filmmaker James Marsh make a film called Man on Wire, about Petit’s exploits, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2008.
O’Connell has been Petit’s partner and girlfriend for 25 years. I wondered how they met. And where.
“Here in New York City,” she said. “On the Lower East Side. Philippe had moved to New York City after his tightrope walk between the towers. I was working in a saddle shop there, playing cards with some of the others who worked there. It was 1987. He walked in looking for a belt. We asked him to join us at the card game. He declined. ‘I cheat,’ he said. We said ‘well we all do, too.’ So he sat down.
“When I found out who he was—this was 10 years after the Twin Towers walk—I talked to him and found he was doing everything himself: writing a book, marketing, public relations etc. ‘Why don’t you hire a PR person?’ I asked. He said he couldn’t afford it. I said, ‘I could do that for you.’”
“Had you done this before?” I asked.
“How did you get a job working in a saddle shop?”
“I’m a horsewoman,” she said. “I faked that I could do leather work.”
Shortly after she moved in with him, he told her about his plan to tightrope illegally cross the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. He had a precedent for this. He had tightroped between the towers of Notre Dame without asking anybody. For the Eiffel Tower, everybody already knew he wanted to do this, so it would be harder. He planned to have a plane crash on the far end of Paris as a diversion.
I told her that sounded a little nuts.
She told me of course it was nuts.
“But then he got a phone call. Pettit had a friend in Paris, Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Russian ballet dancer. There was a situation developing in Paris where the president of France needed good publicity for the country for political reasons. He thought he could arrange a meeting between Petit and Chirac at which Chirac might change his mind. Chirac, until then, was dead set against this.
“Philippe flew to Paris,” she said. “Then he phoned me and told me to come right away. A meeting had been set up. They got me a ticket on the Concorde.
“They also told me that Chirac likes legs, so wear a skirt. We met Chirac in his presidential office. We asked about the walk. Philippe charmed Chirac and got the permission.”
But they still needed money to do this, and they didn’t have any. They found a patron in clothes designer Thierry Mugler. He’d back the effort if Petit would wear a costume of his design during the walk. Also it would be necessary for Pettit to dye his hair a bright color so the eye would be drawn to him. The tightrope walk, several thousand yards, took place.
In the question and answer period after Petit spoke in East Hampton, he was asked if he was ever afraid he would fall.
He didn’t speak for a long time. Then he said, “Well, here I am. Does that answer your question?”
After his presentation, Philippe sat and inscribed (and sold out) his new book, Creativity: The Perfect Crime, which further explains the joy and what is surely an obsession he has of seeing things from high up.
Four days later, Petit was out at Long House in East Hampton where he walked up high over a pond between two trees almost exactly the distance between the Twin Towers 40 years before. It was high drama. Melissa Leo read from his works below. Paul Winter played from inside a rowboat being towed back and forth across the pond.