For 50 years, he walked a wire the width of a bicycle tire suspended hundreds of metres above a street – or a river, or a football stadium – with no net underneath, and no safety harness to break his fall. To his fans, Jay Cochrane was the “Prince of the Air,” the greatest high-wire walker who ever lived.
Mr. Cochrane, born in Saint John 69 years ago, walked from casino to casino high above the streets of Las Vegas, across St. Louis’s famous arch, and most spectacularly, a quarter of a mile in the air above the Yangtze River in China. As a young man, he suffered a terrible fall and was told he might never walk again: Five years later, he was eye level with the birds as he walked between the towers of the Hudson’s Bay centre in downtown Toronto.
Over five decades, Mr. Cochrane got to walk higher and farther than most of his fellow funambulists, although his one main dream – to walk across Niagara Falls – was always denied him, a crushing disappointment that he carried with him to the end. Mr. Cochrane died of pancreatic cancer on Oct. 30.
“You’d watch him walk and you’d think it was going to be incredibly frightening, but when it was done, it filled you almost with a spiritual awe,” said Mr. Cochrane’s friend Shane Peacock, author of The Great Farini, about an earlier Canadian wire walker. “He could be up on 700- or 800-foot wires, just a speck in the sky. It’s so silent and beautiful. It’s about human beings doing something that seems impossible.”
Mr. Cochrane is perhaps better known in China, where a stamp commemorates his walk across the Yangtze, than he is in his home country. In October, 1995, at the invitation of the Chinese government, he walked for 53 minutes across the Qutang Gorge to the strains of Ravel’s Bolero, and into the record books. That nerve-racking trip, 640 metres long and 330 metres high, was the “greatest wire walk in history,” according to Mr. Peacock. Some 200,000 people watched, and millions more followed live on Chinese television.
Even Mr. Cochrane, who used to describe wire walking as “just a day in the office,” was unprepared for the scale of the challenge when he first looked out across the gorge: “I took one look and said to myself: ‘Oh, my God, what the hell did I get myself into?’ Then I said to my Chinese hosts: ‘You want me to walk that?’ ”
He knew he was as safe as he could be, because he designed and checked all the wires and supporting structures himself. Like all funambulists, Mr. Cochrane was both showman and technician: Clad in a bright blue sequined suit, carrying his 12-metre balancing pole, he would regale the crowds below with a running commentary of his walk. But he was not a risk-taker, and would not set foot on the wire if the weather was not right. As Mr. Peacock said: “He had a massive ego and no ego at the same time.”
In 1965, a poorly secured tower sent Mr. Cochrane plunging to the ground as he walked 30 metres above Varsity Stadium. He broke several bones, including his pelvis and both legs, and spent the next four years in and out of hospitals. Determined that this would never happen again, Mr. Cochrane took a degree in structural engineering at the University of Toronto, and thereafter never walked a wire without checking every bolt, wire and fastening himself.
“People used to ask if he had a death wish, and Jay hated that,” Mr. Peacock said. “He used to say, ‘My job is to stay on the wire. My job is to inspire people.’ ”
It was a performance that first inspired Mr. Cochrane, and his mother probably regretted bringing her eight-year-old to the circus that day in Sudbury, Ont. From the moment he saw the acrobats and the tightrope walkers, he was a boy with a mission. He tottered along any precarious ledge he could find. His parents once drove back into Sudbury and peered up at the town’s water tower to see a boy silhouetted against the sky, perched on the railings: There are some crazy kids in this town, they thought, moments before realizing that it was Jay.
Things were not idyllic in Sudbury – Mr. Cochrane would later hint to friends about an unhappy home life – and he ran away at 14, quite literally to join the circus. After seeing the Royal Hanneford Circus in Toronto, he begged for a job: He swept up after animals and eventually was taken under the wing of aerialist Struppi Hanneford, who helped teach him the precision art of wire walking.
The toughness of his own childhood made Mr. Cochrane acutely empathetic to children in need, and he used his walks to raise money for charities. By the end of his life, he had raised millions. At the conclusion of every walk, Mr. Cochrane would give away signed posters, asking only that people made a donation to one of the children’s charities he had chosen.
Last year, a 12-year-old named Jordan McKenzie approached Mr. Cochrane after one of his walks; Jordan was an aspiring funambulist who dressed as the Prince of the Air for Halloween. Mr. Cochrane arranged for a wire (lower, but still impressive) to be built in the boy’s backyard. After his friend’s death, Jordan held a benefit in his backyard, walking across his wire and raising $110 for Tender Wishes, one of Mr. Cochrane’s favourite charities.
“I think Jay regretted not having children,” said Mark Phillips, Mr. Cochrane’s friend and publicist for nearly 20 years. “But he ended up being father to children all around the world.” Mr. Cochrane never married, telling his publicist that he did not want to put a loved one through the stress of watching him walk a wire, and possibly plummet to his death.
But he never did plummet, not after he learned his lesson crashing to the earth in Toronto. On the wire, he was as solid as a stone column. “He had the athleticism of Michael Jordan,” Mr. Phillips said. He avoided wet wires and high winds, and the only thing that fazed him was a steep grade: His most challenging walk came in Niagara Falls, Ont., in 2005, when he crossed between the Niagara Casino and the Skylon Tower, which is some 200 feet higher. He had walked higher, and farther, and even blindfolded, but the steepness of the climb gave him pause.
In 2002, Mr. Cochrane brought skywalking back to Niagara Falls, where thrill-seekers had been denied access to high wires since 1897. It was deemed too dangerous, but Mr. Cochrane proved it did not have to be. Over four summers, he skywalked hundreds of times over the downtown streets. Tourists grew used to craning their necks to see a dot in the sky when they heard the words, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. This is Jay Cochrane speaking to you from 600 feet above your heads.”
In the summer of 2012, at the age of 68, Mr. Cochrane walked between the Skylon and the Hilton 48 times, a total of 19 kilometres. Niagara Falls was the site of Mr. Cochrane’s great triumphs, and his greatest disappointment.
Walking between towers was one thing, but his dream was to walk over the falls. He planned giant towers from which he could pass 200 feet above the falls. As the city’s most visible funambulist, he seemed the likeliest person to be chosen for the honour. In the end, the prize was given to a wirewalker with a more famous name, Nik Wallenda, who walked across the falls (with the benefit of a harness) in June, 2012.
“It was a great disappointment to him,” Mr. Peacock said, adding that his friend had been lobbying to cross the falls for 25 years. “Publicly, Jay said all the right things, but inside it was tearing him up. … They blew it. He would have raised millions for underprivileged kids.”
Mr. Cochrane, a dandy with a taste for brightly coloured clothing, was also known for colour in his speech. “Jayisms,” his friends called them. One day, a few weeks before he died of cancer in Niagara Falls, he told one of them: “It’s time to get on the bus, put the clowns in the back and move on.”