Jeanne Calment was 122 when she died. But last year a Russian scientist claimed she was a con artist, sparking an international dispute over the woman who may still hold the secret to eternal life
If time makes fools of us all, you couldnt blame Andr-Franois Raffray for taking it more personally than most. In 1965, Raffray, a lawyer in the southern French city of Arles, thought he had hit on the real-estate version of a sure thing. The 47-year-old had signed a contract to buy an apartment from one of his clients en viager: a form of property sale by which the buyer makes a monthly payment until the sellers death, when the property becomes theirs. His client, Jeanne Calment, was 90 and sprightly for her age; she liked to surprise people by leaping from her chair at the hairdresser. But still, it couldnt be long: Raffray just had to shell out 2,500 francs a month and wait it out.
He never got to live there. Raffray died in 1995, aged 77, by which time Calment was 120 and one of the most famous women in France. She hadnt lived in the rooms she owned above the Maison Calment, the drapery shop once run by her husband in the heart of Arles, for a decade. Instead, as each birthday thrust her further into the realm of the improbable, Calment held court at La Maison du Lac, the retirement home next to the city hospital. She had no immediate family her husband, daughter and grandson were long dead but journalists and local notables would regularly visit for an audience. I waited 110 years to be famous. I mean to make the most of it, she was reported to have said. One party piece was recounting how, as a teenager, she had met Vincent van Gogh; he was ugly and dishevelled, she said, and locals called him the dingo.
The pensioner appeared blessed with the stamina of Methuselah. Still cycling at 100, she only gave up smoking at 117; her doctors concluded that she had a mental capacity equivalent to most octogenarians. Enough, at any rate, to coin the odd zinger: I wait for death and journalists, she once told a reporter. Aged 121, she recorded a rap CD, Mistress of Time. But even this Michael Jordan of ageing, as one geriatrician put it, had only so much road to run. By 1996, she was in steep decline. Using a wheelchair, largely blind and deaf, she finally succumbed on 4 August 1997. At 122, hers was the oldest validated human lifespan in history.