Nick Wallenda, scion of the Flying Wallendas, recently received permission to cross Niagara Falls on a high wire. That master of heart-in-mouth sensations will be a little late to the party. More than 150 years ago—June 30, 1859, to be exact—a Frenchman named Blondin became the first tightrope walker to cross the Falls. His rise from obscurity to fame amounts to an amalgam of P. T. Barnum and Charles Dickens. Its a wonder no Hollywood studio ever filmed it.
Born in 1824 in St. Omer, France, Jean-François Gravelet first saw aerialists at the age of five when a traveling circus came to town. Immediately afterward, he strung some heavy cord between two chairs and improvised a tightrope act. With his fathers encouragement, Jean-François entered the Ecole de Gymnase in Lyon. Six months later, the gymnastic wunderkind made his debut as The Little Wonder, posturing on a tightrope before delighted audiences.
At the age of nine, Jean-François was suddenly orphaned. Circus promoters moved in, guaranteeing the boy money, security, and top billing. He became a marquee sensation in adolescence. But only after young Gravelet changed his name did he achieve worldwide recognition. While touring in England, he took the sobriquet of Blondin, a reference to his yellow hair, made even more brilliant by spotlights.
Billed as the Great Blondin, he soon became the greatest aerialist in Europe, chattering away as he performed hazardous routines on a rope strung over gasping ticketholders. After a decade doing the same act, however, he grew restless and thought of early retirement. Then, in 1859, on a tour of America, his life changed. Visiting Niagara Falls for the first time, Blondin conceived the idea that would make him a worldwide sensation. He petitioned U.S. and Canadian authorities. Originally, they were hostile to the idea of a high-wire act performed directly over the Falls, thinking it undignified. Later, they relented; the Frenchman could do his thing, as long as he did it a bit farther downstream.
Some 100,000 people saw Blondin stride on a three-inch-thick hemp cord, 1,100 feet long and 160 feet high, stretched over the gorge. Their applause was almost drowned out by the waters roar, but it was enough to encourage the performer to book a series of return engagements. Here, and in other venues, he added new ingredients to the old recipe—he cooked a meal while on the tightrope and lowered it to passengers on a boat called the Maid of the Mist; he took pictures of onlookers while balancing on the rope; he crossed blindfolded, on stilts, pushing a wheelbarrow with a lion in it. Once, he even carried his manager across his back.
On a visit to the U.S. in 1860, the Prince of Wales traveled to the Falls to watch this fearless entertainer. The British satirist Max Beerbohm inquired in a mock-breathless tone: What experience has been withheld from His Royal Highness? . . . For him the Rajahs of India have spoiled their temples, and Blondin has crossed Niagara along the tight-rope.
Boosted by success after success, Blondin married a local girl and settled down in the little town of Niagara in upstate New York. But the centrifugal force of show business proved stronger than the centripetal force of home and hearth. His three children were born in different states while the family was on tour: one in New York, one in Louisiana, and one in Ohio. Everywhere he went, the Great Blondin commanded enormous fees: ultimately he earned $400,000 a year, the equivalent of several million in todays economy.
In 1861, the bedazzled Prince of Wales asked Blondin to reenact the scene he had witnessed in America. The aerialist bowed to the imperial request, this time at the Crystal Palace against a painted backdrop of Niagara Falls. Blondin was very rich by now, and he relocated to South Ealing, England, living in a big house he called Niagara Villa. His fans had reconciled themselves to the notion that their hero was about to retire. But Blondin just couldnt stop. In his 65th year, he performed in the U.S., and three years later did the same act in Belfast, Ireland.
Despite fears that he would perish in a fatal plummet, Blondin died in his villa at the age of 73 in 1897. The cause of death was diabetes, not disaster. A statue of him still stands in Birmingham, England, where he was a great favorite, and 30 years ago, the Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegría wrote Crossing Niagara, based on the daredevils life. But for the most part, the Great Blondin has vanished from public memory. John Barrymore once observed that an actors life is written on water; surely a tightrope artistes is written on the wind. Yet it should be remembered that for the better part of a century, without benefit of the 24-hour news cycle, the hype of press agentry, or Facebook and YouTube braggadocio—and long before anyone had heard of the Flying Wallendas—Blondin not only talked the talk, he walked the walk.
Stefan Kanfer, a City Journal contributing editor, is the author of Tough Without a Gun, a Humphrey Bogart biography.