Believed to be world's oldest, woman in France dies at 122
Jeanne Calment died Monday of natural causes at a retirement home in Arles, France, where she had lived for 12 years. She was just 120 when this photo was taken in 1995.
PARIS -- Jeanne Calment, born a year before Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone and 14 years before Alexandre Gustave Eiffel built his tower, died Monday in a nursing home in Arles. At 122, she was the oldest person whose age had been verified by official documents.
Officials at the nursing home where she moved when she was 110 gave no specific cause of death. Calment, who had been confined to a wheelchair after a fall nine years ago, was nearly blind and very hard of hearing. She gave up a two-cigarette-a-day habit a few years ago -- not for health reasons, a doctor said, but because she could no longer see well enough to light up and hated asking others to do it for her.
In her last decade Calment became a French institution, regularly described in the news media as the "doyenne of humanity." Every year on her birthday, Feb. 21, she regaled reporters with quips about her secret of longevity -- the list changed every year and included laughter, activity and "a stomach like an ostrich's." Her most memorable explanation was that "God must have forgotten me."
Despite her faltering physical condition, Calment continued to show impressive mental acuity and high spirits. "I've only ever had one wrinkle, and I'm sitting on it," she said when she turned 110.
For her 121st birthday last year, a record company released Mistress of Time, a four-track CD of her spoken reminiscences over a background of rap and other tunes. The retirement-home supervisor who brokered the recording contract was removed from her post after charges that Calment had not fully understood what was involved.
The French had their own theories about why she lived so long, noting that she used to eat more than two pounds of chocolate a week, treat her skin with olive oil, drank port wine and rode a bicycle until she was 100.
Longevity ran in the family. Calment's mother lived until she was 86 and her father until he was 93. But Jean-Marie Robine, a public health researcher who is one of the authors of a book about Calment, said her great strength was her unflappability.
"I think she was someone who, constitutionally and biologically speaking, was immune to stress," he said in a telephone interview. "She once said, `If you can't do anything about it, don't worry about it.' "
At her party last year, Calment hinted about what it takes to stay interested in life, even one as long as hers.
"I dream, I think, I go over my life," she said. "I never get bored."
At the age of 115 she fell and fractured two bones, and her memory began to fail. But she retained a tart wit. 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."
The Guinness Book of World Records had listed Calment as the oldest-living person whose birth date could be authenticated by reliable records.
Clive Carpenter, spokesman for Guinness Publications in London, said the firm had an unconfirmed candidate for the oldest-person honors -- a woman living in California who says she is 118. But Guinness would not recognize the claim or identify her until its researchers have seen her birth certificate.
Monday the mayor of Arles, Michel Vauzelle, said the town is in mourning. "She was the living memory of our town. She brought us comfort and hope with her liveliness, humor and tenderness. In short, we had hoped she was immortal," he said in a statement quoted by news services.
Calment was born in Arles in 1875, before the invention of the light bulb and the phonograph, the airplane and the automobile.
According to a legend amplified by the French press, as a young teen-ager Calment met Vincent Van Gogh when the artist spent a year in Provence and bought his canvases at a local art-supply shop owned by her future in-laws. Prompted by reporters, she described Van Gogh as "very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick. ... We called him a madman."
She turned 40 during the first months of World War I and reached retirement age at the outbreak of World War II. Having married in 1896, she outlived her husband by 55 years, their only child by 63 years and their only grandchild by 37 years.
Calment left no heirs.
She also outlived Andre-Francois Raffray, a lawyer who, 32 years ago, when she was merely 90, bought the apartment she used to live in on a contingency contract. He would pay her 2,500 francs (now about $400) a month until she died, and then the apartment would become his.
Raffray died a year ago at 77, after paying Calment more than $180,000, better than double the apartment's market value. His family was still paying when she died.
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