Saturday, January 5, 2013

5 Minutes of Biography: Jeanne Calment

According to Bible tradition, the oldest person who ever lived was Methusaleh, who enjoyed 969 years before giving up the ghost, to use another Biblical reference. His lifespan has given rise to the phrase “as old as Methusaleh”. 

The officially confirmed and recorded longest lifespan is that of Jeanne Louise Calment, who was born on 21 February 1875 and died on 4 August 1997 aged 122 years and 164 days.  In later years she commented that she competed with Methusaleh.

“All babies are beautiful.” 

- Jeanne Calment 

Calment was born in Arles in 1875 where she lived her entire life. The daughter of a shipbuilder father and a mother who came from a family of millers, she inherited good genes: her older brother Fran├žois lived to the age of 97, her father to six days short of 100, and her mother to 86. 

“I took pleasure when I could. I acted clearly and morally and without regret. I’m very lucky.” 

Jeanne Calment at age 20 

In 1896, aged 21, she married her double second cousin. The paternal grandfathers of she and her husband were brothers, the paternal grandmothers were sisters. As a result she did not need to change her name, her husband was named Fernand Calment. Being married to a wealthy storeowner meant that she did not have to work to earn an income so she devoted her time to leisure pursuits: tennis, cycling, swimming, rollerskating, piano and opera. 

At age 22 

“Not having children is one less worry. Children are a worry!” 

Jeanne and Fernand had a daughter, Yvonne, two years after marriage. She had a son, Frederic, in 1926, but sadly Yvonne died in 1933 from pneumonia, from which time Jeanne raised Frederic. Fernand died in 1942 aged 73 after eating a dessert prepared with spoiled cherries. Grandson Frederic became a doctor but died at age 36, in 1963, in an automobile accident. 

At age 25 

At age 40 

“In life, people sometimes make rotten deals.” 

When aged 90 Jeanne Calment entered into a deal with lawyer Andre-Francois Raffray. He bought her apartment on a contingency contract: he would pay her 2,500 francs a month until she died, title passing when she died. It seemed like a reasonable deal at the time but lawyer Raffray had not counted on her living to 122. He died in 1996, aged 77, after paying her the then equivalent of $180,000, more than double the market value of the apartment. After Raffray’s death his family continued the payments, his widow commenting after Jeanne Calment’s death ''She was a personality. My husband had very good relations with Mrs. Calment.'' 

At age 60 

“Always keep your smile, that’s how I explain my long life.” 

Jeanne Calment rode a bicycle until she was 100 and walked all over Arles to thank those who congratulated her on her birthday that year. 

In 1985, aged 110, she moved into a nursing home.  She complained that the nursing home food tasted like baby food and that it always tasted the same. 

At the age of 115, she fell and fractured two bones, and her memory began to fail but she retained her wit and sense of humour. When somebody took leave by telling her, ''Until next year, perhaps,'' she retorted: ''I don't see why not! You don't look so bad to me.' 

At age 113 

At age 116 

“I’m interested in everything but passionate about nothing.” 

Jeanne Calment came to international prominence in 1988, when she was aged 113, on the occasion of the 100 year anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s visit to Arles. She told reporters that she had met van Gogh in 1888 when he had come to Arles when she was a 13 year old girl. He had come to her uncle’s fabric shop to buy some canvas. She described him as “dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable,” adding that he was ''very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick -- I forgive him, they called him loco.'' At the age of 114 she appeared briefly in the 1990 film Vincent and Me, the oldest person to ever appear in a motion picture. 

“I have legs of iron, but to tell the truth, they’re starting to rust and buckle a bit.” 

At age 117 

At age 117

Her tip for remaining youthful up until the end was olive oil on both her food and skin. She also had a diet consisting of port wine and one kilo of chocolate a day. In addition to her diet she smoked two cigarettes a day from age 22 to age 117. 

“I don’t like mundane life.” 

''I dream, I think, I go over my life. 'I never get bored.'' 

At age 121 

On her 121st birthday, she released a CD ''Time's Mistress.'' It featured her reminiscing to a score of rap and other tunes. 

“Death doesn’t frighten me; now I can think peacefully of ending a long life.” 

Jeanne Calment died on 4 August 1997 aged 122. Though blind, nearly deaf and in a wheelchair, she remained spirited and mentally sharp to the end. 

On her death the mayor of Arles commented that ''She was the living memory of our city. Her birthdays were a sort of family holiday, where all the people of Arles gathered around their big sister.'' 

''She was a little bit the grandmother of all of us,'' said President Jacques Chirac. 

Andre Pons, a local baker in Arles, said ''It's a bit of our heritage that went away today.” 

“I’ve only got one wrinkle and I’m sitting on it.”

- Jeanne Calment


  1. Jeanne credited her extraordinary longevity to olive oil, which she used generously on her food and skin, as well as a diet of port wine and about 1kg of chocolate a week. Her food habits, olive oil and wine, reveal that she was a non-vegetarian, and that's also a secret of her longevity.

  2. What exactly did she eat, did she eat meat and eggs for example?

  3. What exactly did she eat, did she eat meat and eggs for example?