It is with great pleasure that I can report another twist in the legendary tale of Ms Jeanne Calment, who is generally regarded as the longest-living person on record. In a plot-twist worthy of any Hollywood comedy-drama, it has now been claimed that she faked her age and was actually 23 years younger than the 122 years attributed to her. But first, a little amusing background on this quirky lady.
Born the century before last, in 1875 in the southern French region of Arles, Ms Calment was declared the oldest living person in 1988, 100 years after she had an encounter with Vincent van Gogh in her uncle’s shop (incidentally, she described van Gogh as “ugly and alcoholic”). She was again declared the oldest living person in 1995 at the age of 120, two years before her passing in August 1997.
In 1896, at the age of 21, she married her wealthy second-double-cousin Fernand Nicolas Calment, whose affluence meant she never had to work and she spent her life hob-nobbing with high society in Arles. However, she remained active, spending her time swimming, playing tennis, roller-skating, cycling and mountaineering.
Incidentally, Fernand had been pursuing her since she was 15 years old but she had declined his advances, declaring that she was “more interested in sweets”.
WWII had little affect on her, aside from a few German soldiers sleeping in some of her rooms for a time, and she declared the most interesting historical events of her life to be the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the execution of the Russian imperial family.
One of my favourite strands to her story is how in 1965, at age 90, she made a deal with solicitor Mr Andre Francoise Raffray for a ‘life estate’ interest on her apartment. Raffray paid her the equivalent of €380 each month until she died, on the understanding he would inherit her apartment upon her death. He died from cancer in 1995 and his family was compelled to continue making the payments until she died, which eventually amounted to twice the value of the apartment. “In life, sometimes one makes bad deals,” she commented with lovely Gallic wistfulness.
A medical student published a thesis on Ms Calment when she was 114 years old — she had never taken medicines apart from aspirin for migraines, and apart from a few arthropathies, had an unremarkable medical profile for a woman 30 or 40 years her junior. That thesis is a fascinating read in itself.
She smoked tobacco from the age of 21 and lived independently until close to her 110th birthday, when she moved to a nursing home, where she complained of the “bland” food and regularly requested spicy, fried foods. She cycled her bicycle until her 100th birthday and was reported to eat cream cakes, ice cream and an undisclosed amount of port wine. Maybe that’s the real Mediterranean Diet.
However, a twist to the tale — in a study conducted last year, Russian mathematician Nikolay Zak hypothesised that she actually died in 1934 and since then was impersonated by her only daughter Yvonne in order for the family to avoid paying a hefty inheritance tax — a claim that has been refuted by Jeanne’s biographer and family.
I will not speculate about who funded Mr Zak’s study, and whether or not it was an insurance company, but I will keep you updated on any further developments.
As another year creeps in, and bearing in mind the piece above relating to Ms Calment, here are a few philosophical offerings on the ageing process for your delectation. As always, your contributions and comments are welcome via the email address below.
“As you get older, three things happen. The first is, your memory goes. I can’t remember the other two.” Norman Wisdom, actor and comedian.
“Middle age ends and senescence begins, the day your descendants outnumber your friends.” Ogden Nash, poet.
“I’m 59 and people call me ‘middle-aged’. How many 118-year-old men do you know?” Barry Cryer, actor and comedian.
“The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.” Lucille Ball, actress.
“There is absolutely nothing to be said in favour of growing old. There ought to be legislation against it.” Patrick Moore, astronomer and broadcaster.
“I’m so old they’ve cancelled my blood type.” Bob Hope.
“Don’t let ageing get you down. It’s too hard to get back up.” John Wagner, comics writer.
“When I was young, I was called a rugged individualist. When I was in my 50s, I was considered eccentric. Here I am doing and saying the same things I did then, and I’m labelled ‘senile’.” George Burns.
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