Hermine Demoriane

Defying vertigo and the void

It is lucky for us common mortals that Philippe Petit is a tightrope-walker who can write. Blondin, the funambule of Niagara Falls (1859), left nothing but interviews, so that we know very little about his character. Like Philippe, he forsook his native France following success in the US but, instead of staying on, moved to London for an engagement at the newly built Crystal Palace. He remained here until his death in 1897 and is buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

There was no equivalent of the Crystal Palace to be found the summer of 1973, when Philippe Petit came over to London at my request. The Department of the Environment had denied me permission to walk a tightrope across the Serpentine at water level and I was hoping the funambule of Notre-Dame would help organise a clandestine attempt. But he didn’t like the idea and proceeded to discourage me, saying he hated the thought of getting one’s feet wet while walking the tightrope. Within hours of arrival, he had set out to find his own tightrope walk location.

Nothing was big or tall enough for him and we failed utterly to find a building worthy of his rope. Later, receiving by chance a card featuring the WTC towers, I thought it would be a good location for a tightrope walk and mentioned it to Philippe. He answered with a picture of the WTC adorned with a biro line between the towers, with a tightrope-walker on it. On the back, he had written, ‘Of course.’

It was exciting to be in on the conspiracy, and although I was still disappointed at his refusal to help with the Serpentine, I soon forgave him.

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