When Jeanne Calment was born in 1875, in Arles, Provence, the average life expectancy for a woman was 48 and Thomas Edison still had to make his light bulb.
But this doughy French woman rode on for 122 years (and 164 days) to become the oldest woman in the world, driven by life with vim and verve.
She saw the Eiffel tower being built. She met Vincent van Gogh (apparently ‘ugly as a louse’). She played the piano, roller skates, hunted wild boar, hiked on glaciers, smoked, went fencing (in her 80s), was the subject of a film (in her 120th year), recorded a rap CD (when she 121 was) and was always extremely proud of her ‘very good legs’.
By the time she died, in 1997, she was a national heroine – alienated, honored and interviewed again and again about the secrets of her smooth youth and unparalleled lifespan.
Jeanne Calment (photo) was born in 1875, in Arles, Provence, when the average life expectancy for a woman was 48 and Thomas Edison still had to make his light bulb
So when a Russian mathematician named Nikolay Zak recently claimed that it was not Jeanne who died in 1997, but her daughter, Yvonne (allegedly died in 1934 of tuberculosis, 36 years old), caused indignation in France.
In an article published on ResearchGate, a scientific social networking site, Zak insisted that Jeanne not only seemed too youthful to be 122, but that she had too many inconsistencies in her life story.
Why had the color of her eyes changed from ‘dark’ to green during her lifetime?
How was her height – 4 ft 11 in as a young woman – remained so undiminished by age? Who could explain why the looping ‘J’ in her signature had changed so dramatically since her childhood?
And what about all those stories in which she obscured the identity of her ‘husband’ and ‘father’, especially when it came to her memory of meeting Van Gogh in 1888?
Zak became convinced that it was Jeanne, not Yvonne, who had died in 1934, the latter assuming her own mother’s identity and maintaining the lie for more than 60 years.
The reason? To avoid French inheritance tax of up to 35 percent. In an article published in the American journal Rejuvenation Research, Zak has compiled a file of 17 pieces of biographical evidence to support his “alternating theory,” including inexplicable physical differences between young and old Jeanne.
A Russian mathematician named Nikolay Zak recently claimed that it was not Jeanne (right) who died in 1997, but her daughter, Yvonne (left).
He certainly has a point that Jeanne always seemed bizarre youthful. Even at the age of 90 she was slim, fit and flexible. When she reached her century, she still cycled everywhere in smartly cut suits, shoes with heels and stockings.
Only when she reached 110 – after she climbed a table to try to defrost the kettle with a candle and start a small fire – did she move her large apartment to a nearby retirement home.
It is not surprising that the French greatly protect Jeanne’s memory. How dare this Russian beginner to stain their native ‘Doyenne de l’humanité’ (oldest woman in the world).
To be honest, it was a matter of pride rather than any preference for the woman involved. To Jeanne – a shrill, bossy, haughty woman – had never been hugely loved.
The daughter of a shipbuilder had led an unobtrusive, devastated life: she went to school, learned the piano and “prepared for marriage” with her cousin, Fernand Calment, heir to a large curtain company in the city.
She always remembered that van Gogh, who painted in Arles, came to her family’s shop in her teens to buy canvases and her father was waiting for him.
(Zak makes a lot out of this – because Jeanne’s father was a shipbuilder and the dry-goods store in question belonged to her husband’s family.)
In the meantime, the marriage brought comfort, a house full of servants, and time to continue its hobbies of tennis, roller skating, cycling, and wild boar hunting.
But her daughter, Yvonne, was sick and died – or not, as Zak would like – in 1934 and left behind a husband, Colonel Joseph Billot, and a seven-year-old son, Frederic (Freddy), of whom Jeanne and Fernand took over.
Zak insisted that Jeanne (photo) seemed too youthful to be 122
Eight years later, Fernand also died and Jeanne and Freddy moved with her son-in-law.
(According to Zak, this was Yvonne who went to live with her own husband again!)
In 1963 she also lost them. In January, Joseph died after a long illness and in August Freddy died in a car accident.
In 1969, when she was 94, Jeanne sold her apartment to her lawyer under the French and Viager system, where the buyer regularly pays on a property in which the seller continues to live until they die.
Or not, in the case of Jeanne. She lived on and on.
When the lawyer died in 1995, he had paid more than £ 150,000 – much more than the property was worth – and was never withdrawn.
Even then, Jeanne did not relinquish his family’s payments, simply saying, “In life, you sometimes make bad deals.”
In the nursing home, where she was nicknamed “La Commandante” by nurses, Jeanne insisted that she be treated as if she were a guest in a hotel.
With the expiration of every birthday her fame grew worldwide. And she embraced it with enthusiasm.
“I have waited 110 years to become famous. I want to make the best of it, “she once said.
She quit smoking when she was 117 and stated that after almost 100 years it had “become a bit of a habit.” But she never gave up her daily portion.
Finally, on August 4, 1997, after 122 years, five months and 14 days, Jeanne ran out of steam.
She went to her grave after having burned all the family documents two years earlier and was buried with Yvonne. She was the oldest validated person in history, finally at rest. Or maybe not.
Zak’s theory can certainly be challenged. To begin with, Yvonne should pretend to be her own father’s wife. And Frederic, her seven-year-old son, should have lied. And everything because of the inheritance tax that the family could certainly have afforded?
Team Jeanne states that an official verification of her age confirms her truth. Guided over the course of a year in 1995, when she turned 120, she was asked about documented details regarding family members, about people and places from her early life, and passed with flying colors.
But there is room for doubt.
Jeanne’s eyes were documented as one color on an identity card in the 1930s, but were reportedly green in later life.
She was always slim, but did not lose any height when the very elderly – especially women – act when their bones weaken.
And, perhaps the most intriguing of all, there was the strange decision to have all of her papers and family photos burned in 1994 when the Arles officials asked to be included in the city archive.
Perhaps even more convincing is Zak’s refusal to believe that someone could live that long. After all, in the two decades since Jeanne’s death, no one else has come close to her record.
Team Jeanne maintains that their heroine was simply unique.
She lived well, they say, was never sick or overweight, regularly exercised her mind and body and attributed her youthful skin to a daily blob of olive oil and a hint of powder.
But in reality it is a mystery that will last forever.