by Dave Riley
“If you live to be a hundred you’ve got it made because hardly anybody dies after a hundred.” — George Burns
The other day my neighbor Arnie and I had a discussion — a bit of an argument really — about old people, people who are, as Arnie put it, “a hundred and something. “
“I’ve read stories about them,” Arnie said, “and they all live in some remote village named Taxistan, and they eat mush every day. Most of them have never been outside their village, and one of them I read about had lived in the same hut for 103 years. What kind of life is that?”
Arnie is a nice guy, but in this instance, I thought he was all wet. “You’re being disrespectful,” I said. “For all we know these were some of the happiest people in the world who did wonderful works of charity for everyone else in their village.”
I took Arnie’s dismissive attitude as a challenge. Surely I could find someone who had lived not only a long life, but a rich life as well. And just as surely, as soon as I Googled “old people,” I found someone. Actually a whole bunch of old someones, but the one who fascinated me most was Jeanne Louise Calment.
Jeanne Louise was born in France on February 21, 1875, and died August 4, 1997. According to the Guinness book of records, at one point she was the oldest person ever to have lived, although I believe her record of 122 years and 164 days has since been surpassed. If you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning picture this: Jeanne Louise had to do it 44,724 times in her lifetime.
Jeanne Louise did not live in a remote village, but in the historic and beautiful city of Arles. Located on the Rhone River in Provence, it was romanticized by Georges Bizet in his lyrical L’Arlésienne Suites. Nor did Jeanne Louise have to live in a hut. Her father Nicolas, a shipbuilder and her mother Margurite who was born into a family of millers, provided her with comfortable surroundings.
When she was 13, a gentleman whom she described as “very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick,” came into her uncle’s fabric shop, and she sold him some colored pencils. He was Vincent Van Gogh, and if Jeanne Louise’s judgment seems harsh, it was shared by others in the town who the following year were instrumental in having the artist institutionalized. Nearly 60 years later, Jeanne Louise was featured in a short film entitled, Darkness Into Light, a promotion for the 1956 Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life starring Kirk Douglas.
When Jeanne Louise was 21, she married Fernand Calment, a wealthy merchant, and was able to live what one biographer called “a lavish life … She never really had to work and pursued learning the piano, swimming, cycling, tennis and opera.” They had one child, Yvonne.
Jeanne Louise loved chocolate and reportedly ate a kilo a week — 2.2 pounds. She also enjoyed sipping port, and is said to have smoked a couple of cigarettes a day until the age of 117 when she quit smoking, becoming undoubtedly the oldest person in history to kick the habit. Although not considered particularly athletic, she took up fencing at 80 and was still cycling at 100. Living long came naturally to Jean Louise’s family. Her father Nicolas lived to 93, her mother Margurite to 86, and her brother Francois to 97.
Jeanne Louise’s life was punctuated with historical milestones. She was thirty-two when Picasso introduced cubism, thirty-nine when WW I broke out, fifty-two when Charles Lindbergh completed his historic flight with a landing at Le Bourget Field in Paris, seventy when WW II ended, eighty-two when the Beatles introduced Sgt. Pepper, one-hundred-one when Viking I and II landed on Mars, one-hundred-fourteen when the Berlin Wall fell, and one-hundred-twenty-two and in the last two months of her life when the first Harry Potter book was published.
Undoubtedly good fortune played a part in Jeanne Louise’s longevity. Her husband Fernand and her daughter Yvonne also had some luck in that regard but it was all bad. One evening after dinner in 1942 Fernand ate a dessert containing some cherries, which turned out to be spoiled. Shortly thereafter at age 74, he died. Yvonne lived to be only 36 when she contracted pneumonia and also died.
In 1965 when Jeanne Louise was 90, she sold her apartment to a lawyer named Andre-Francois Raffray for payments of 2,500 francs per month in a transaction the French refer to as en viager or, loosely, “life annuity.” That meant M. Raffray would make the monthly payment to Jean Louise until she died, but Jean Louise would continue to live in the apartment.
Raffray must have figured, “How much longer can she possibly live?” Another 32 years as it turned out. Nevetheless M. Raffray, and subsequently his widow, kept their part of the deal, ultimately paying Jeanne Louise more than 900,000 francs or about $180,000, more than twice the value of the apartment.
(If you want to see a cinematic version of en viager, rent the delightful 2014 film My Old Lady starring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith.)
In her later years Jeanne Louise accepted her role as a celebrity of sorts. “I wait for death and journalists,” she once said. She suggested her longevity may have been the result of a divine accounting accident: “I’ve been forgotten by our good Lord.” According to the people at Guinness, when she was asked on her 120th birthday what she expected of the future, she replied, “a very short one.”
Jean-Marie Robine, a public health researcher and one of the authors of a book about Mme. Calment, had a scientific theory for her extraordinary longevity. ”I think she was someone who, constitutionally and biologically speaking, was immune to stress,” he told the New York Times. ”She once said, ‘If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.’ ”
I rarely drink port, Mme. Calment’s wine of choice, but the next time I do it will be to toast this lady, whose long and fulfilling life refutes the myths that many people hold about centenarians. Michel Vauzelle, the Mayor of Arles, told the Times what Jeanne Louise meant to the city: ”She was Jeanne the Arlesienne, one whose picture went around the world… she was the living memory of our city.”