Jeanne Calment, The Oldest Person to Have Ever Lived, Was 122 Years Old!
In a quiet French town called Arles, famous for the Roman ruins and its association with Vincent Van Gogh, another extraordinary story unfolded in the 19th century. It is the “time-defying” life story of Jeanne Calment, the supercentenarian, and the world’s oldest, verified living person.
Jeanne, who was born in 1875, lived until 1997. She wrapped up 122 years of her life in Arles and continued to be undeniably charming, alert, witty, without any sign of senile dementia till her last days!
“God must have forgotten me,” she once remarked!
Born at a time when life expectancy for women in France hardly crossed 45, Jeanne managed to outlive the entire world’s current population when she was born. Without much ado, she became an icon and one of the most talked about women in France.
Jeanne Calment’s extraordinarily long life began in 1875.
Jeanne was born on February 21, 1875, in Arles, France. To put it in perspective, it was the year when Alexander Graham Bell discovered the telephone, and the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act! Jeanne got a full education and finished primary school and college at the age of 16. She led a comfortable life, learning painting, taking piano lessons, and continuing to live with her parents until she got married.
Jeanne married Fernand Nicolas Calment in 1896, at the age of 21, and moved to a big apartment in a classic Provencal-style building in the city center, just above her husband’s family drapery business store. Having married into a wealthy family, Jeanne did not have to work a single day. Instead, she spent her upper-class life of leisure, attending parties, spending time with her friends, and pursuing music, painting, tennis, and cycling.
Jeanne’s only daughter, Yvonne Calment, was born in 1898. Unfortunately, she died of tuberculosis on her 36th birthday leaving behind a husband, and a seven-year-old son, Frédéric. The grandparents raised him like their own child! But Jeanne’s husband, Fernand, died in 1942 when he got ill after eating chemical-laden cherries. Jeanne became a widow at 67. But little did she know it was just one half of her entire life!
Jeanne met Vincent Van Gogh when she was 13.
Jeanne was around when Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles! She claimed that she met him in the family shop. Imagine someone telling you this as late as the 1990s. No wonder her validators and researchers were completely astounded by her accounts.
Her husband introduced her to Van Gogh. According to her, she said, “That’s Van Gogh?” She thought he was ugly and disheveled. But her version of this story often differs. Sometimes, it was her father who waited on Van Gogh as he came into the dry goods store to buy canvas, but her father was a shipbuilder. In another version, it is her husband who introduces them. This is more likely as he did have a shop below their apartment.
But, when your life spans over a century, the details and dates do get blurred. Years after her death, when her authenticity was questioned, the inconsistency in her Van Gogh story became one of the reasons for doubt.
André François, her notary, made the unluckiest deal in history!
By the end of the year 1963, Jeanne Calment had no family left. Her son-in-law Joseph died after a prolonged illness, and her grandson, Freddy, was killed in a car accident. Since then, until the age of 110, she lived alone in the grand, spacious apartment, keeping herself busy with a million things. People who knew her described her as the “little old lady” who “dashed all over town” and “went down the steps of St. Trophime church like a kid.”
In 1969, she was 94 years old, still living in the apartment. André François, her notary, made a deal with her. He bought her apartment under the French en viager system, which was like a contingency contract. It allowed her to stay in the apartment as long as she liked, and every month she stayed, Andre would pay her 2,500 francs. But when she died, the apartment was his.
It was quite a good deal, except that he had counted on her not surviving much longer. But she continued to live, to his amazement. She crossed a century and another decade. When Calment was 120, Andre himself passed away at 77 in 1995. By then, he had already paid more than $180,000, more than twice the value of the apartment. And he never even got to live in the apartment. After his death, his wife continued to pay until Jeanne’s death in 1997.
Jeanne Calment’s three-digit birthdays!
At 100, Jeanne was still riding her bike, enjoying fencing (a sport she took up at 85), and running up and down the stairs of her apartment, agile and sprightly as ever. On her 100th birthday, the mayor of Arles planned a grand celebration in her honor. But she turned down the offer, suspecting the mayor to be a communist. She disliked communists. Later, she felt bad and went to apologize at the town hall. The mayor described her as someone who looked at least 20 years younger than her age.
Always finely dressed and often seen wearing high heels and seamed stockings, Jeanne was fit as a fiddle. Another decade passed, with Jeanne still going strong and still living alone in her apartment. She had not even installed a modern heating system. Her change of address came when she accidentally started a small fire, trying to unfreeze the boiler with the flame of a candle. Jeanne agreed to shift to a retirement home, Maison du Lac, but only until the cold weather passed. However, she ended up staying here until her death.
In 1988, Jeanne was 112 years old, still living in Maison du Luc, and passed her days with rigid discipline. She woke up every day at 6:45 a.m., prayed, exercised, and listened to classical music on her Walkman. She was demanding and acted more like a hotel guest in the retirement home. The nurses gave her a name, “la commandante.” At 117, she quit smoking, a habit she picked up only at 112. However, she stuck to her nightly glass of port wine.
Jeanne Calment became an icon, the oldest person known to have ever lived!
Jeanne Calment of France was the oldest person to have ever lived. She died in 1997 at 122 years old. pic.twitter.com/I1reMSVWKz
— The World (@World) May 7, 2015
“My body functions are still the same. I have never been ill. Never, ever, ever.” ∼ Jeanne Calment, 1987
Jeanne Calment officially became the oldest person on the planet with a documented and verified age. Her life soon caught the attention of scientists and researchers. While Jeanne happily sipped her wine and indulged in chocolates, researchers continued investigating and delved deeper into her records to verify her age. In 1988 she was briefly the oldest person in the world until the title was given to a Florida resident, three months her senior. But in 1991, when that person died at age 116, Jeanne became the oldest, verified, living person!
She continued to enjoy the spotlight and hype around her, always looking forward to the journalists and their cameras. Her vibrant personality, sharp wit, and joie de vivre charmed those around her. Her birthdays became TV events, and at age 121, she even recorded a rap CD, Mistress of Time. When she died in 1997, the country, especially Arles, mourned the loss of its oldest resident.
Controversy regarding Jeanne Calment’s age started 20 years after her death.
In 2018, Russian gerontologist Valery Novoselov, along with Nikolay Zak, a Russian glassblower and mathematician with a passion for researching centenarians, put forward a theory. According to him, Jeanne Calment died in 1934 at age 59. Yvonne, her daughter, took her place and posed as her mother. Zak says that Jeanne belonged to a very influential family, and the mayor of Arles was a family friend. But the question is why? Zak says it was to avoid paying inheritance tax. Through his research, he put forward quite a few inconsistencies. But unfortunately, none were substantiated.
According to Zak, the identity card from the 1930s described her eyes as being black. But in later records from when she was old, her eye colors are described as grey. Also, Calment never mentioned the cholera epidemic in Arles in 1884. The fact that she had enlisted a relative to burn her personal belongings also added to Zak’s suspicion and hypothesis. Her height recorded on her identity card (152 centimeters) is almost the same height she had at age 114 (150 cm tall). How did she not lose almost no height at that age? Other factors did not add up. There were loopholes in her stories and confusion in dates.
But as Jeanne herself rebuked an interviewer once, “When you’re 117, you see if you remember everything!”
Did Jeanne fool everyone?
Zak’s theory that Jeanne Calment is a fraud created an outrage among residents of Arles. The residents unified on Facebook, trying to investigate the claims made by Zak to prove them wrong. Soon testimonies poured in from residents who, or whose parents and grandparents, knew the Calment family intimately. A scheme of such a magnanimous proportion would not have been easy to hide. Also, the inheritance tax, the main reason Zak believes the identity switch happened, could not have been anything that the family could not afford. They verified each claim and rejected every theory trying to prove Zak wrong.
French gerontologist Jeanne-Marie Robine was one of the validators of Calment. Robine says he and Michael Allard, the second doctor who helped verify Calment’s records, pointed out that Jeanne had said answered questions that her daughter could not have known. Moreover, innumerable documents verified her activities throughout her life, including census data and photographs. Most importantly, for such a cinematic character switch to happen, how many people would have needed to keep lying – Jeanne’s husband, son, relatives, and the entire town of Arles? The idea was preposterous.
Therefore, even today, according to The Guinness Book of World Records, Jeanne Calment remains listed as the oldest person ever to have lived. Zak is in favor of a DNA analysis. But, out of respect, most agree that Jeanne Calment’s remains should not be dug up just for an investigation of this claim of fraud.
The oldest woman to ever live, Jeanne Calment, was born on this date in 1875.
— Guinness World Records (@GWR) February 21, 2023
Her words on her 120th birthday were, “I’ve waited 110 years to be famous. I count on taking advantage of it.”
And she has managed to stay famous fairly well!
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