She was born on 21 February 1875, around 14 years before the Eiffel Tower was constructed (she saw it being built), and some 15 years before the advent of movies. The year after her birth, Tolstoy published Anna Karenina and Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Jeanne Louise Calment (France) lived a quiet life. But an unprecedentedly long one.
Her marriage to a wealthy distant cousin, Fernand Nicolas Calment, in 1896 meant that Jeanne didn’t have to work for a living. That may have played a part in her extraordinary longevity: she was free to swim, play tennis, cycle (she was still cycling until the age of 100) and roller skate, all of which promoted excellent good health. Inevitably, in due course, those around her passed away – including her husband (poisoned by some spoiled cherries, aged 73), her daughter Yvonne (who died from pneumonia in 1934) and even her grandson, Frédéric (who died in a car accident in 1963). But not Jeanne.
As she was without heirs, in 1965 a lawyer named André-François Raffray set up a “reverse mortgage” with Jeanne. According to this arrangement, he would pay her 2,500 francs every month until she died, whereupon he would inherit her apartment. It must have seemed like a good deal for Monseiur Raffray (then aged 47) – after all, Jeanne was 90 at the time. Incredibly, however, Jeanne outlived him. He died thirty years later and his family continued the payments. By the time of her death, they had paid Jeanne more than double the value of her apartment.
Jeanne remained in fine health for the majority of her life – she even took up fencing at the tender age of 85. Her diet was good too, rich in olive oil (which she also rubbed into her skin), and she restricted herself to a modest glass of wine every now and then. But she also had a sweet tooth, with a particular fondness for chocolate: she ate almost 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) of it each week. And she loved her cigarettes: Jeanne had smoked from the age of 21 and only quit when she was 117. She was able to walk on her own until she was one month before her 115th birthday, when she fell and fractured her femur; thereafter she needed a wheelchair to get around.
She lived on her own until the age of 110, when she had to move into a nursing home. Two years later, on 11 January 1988, she became the oldest living person; and two years after that, now aged 114, she appeared in a film about Van Gogh, Vincent et moi (1990), as herself, thereby becoming the Oldest film actress ever. Working as a girl in her father’s shop in Arles, France, she had sold painting canvasses to Van Gogh. “He was ugly as sin, had a vile temper and smelled of booze,” she later recalled:
She even went on to become a recording artist: aged 120, her voice featured on a four-track CD, Time’s Mistress:
Her tranquil state of mind probably contributed to Jeanne’s long, long life (“That’s why they call me Calment,” she quipped at her 121st birthday in 1996), and may have helped her stave off senility – she remained clear thinking right up to the day she passed away in 1997, aged 122 years 164 days.
Jeanne was also famous for her wit, and felt that her sense of humour also played its part in her remarkable longevity. At her 120th birthday, journalists asked her what kind of future she expected. “A very short one,” she replied.