Jeanne Louise Calment
February 21, 1875 - August 4, 1997
She lived 122 years, 164 days


She was already 14 years old when Gustave Eiffel completed his latticework tower, but in 1889 a trip to Paris was not something a family did for a casual weekend; most likely she didn’t visit it until she was older.

The year before she had started helping in the family shop; once she sold art supplies to Vincent Van Gogh, the strange man who painted pictures of sunflowers and the fields surrounding Arles. Many, many years later, when his paintings were selling for astronomical sums, she remembered: “He drank too much and had an odor about him, as if he did not wash very often.”

When she was 114 years old she had a role in the movie, “Vincent and Me”. She played herself, Jeanne Louise Calment, the woman who lived to be the oldest person in the world during the 20th century.

She was born, lived and died in Arles, an old, old city on the edge of the Camargue in the south of France. She came from good stock : her father lived to the age of 94, her mother reached 86. They were bourgeois, the solid middle class : strong, thrifty, conventional people. At the age of 21 she married her second cousin, Fernand Calment.

Such marriages were not uncommon at the end of the 19th century. She would stay in Arles, with her extended family around her. Doubtlessly she expected to have children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. There would be family for her when she was old, just as she would be there when her grandparents, then her parents grew old.

When she married she received her Livret de Famille, the French equivalent of a marriage certificate that would be updated throughout her life. Her birth, baptism, and school records were already documented in various archives. Now the Livret de Famille would bear witness to other major events: marriage, birth of children, death of spouse, all would be noted in the records of the city of Arles and in this little book.

The French have always had a strong sense of family. Part of the protection of the family is to record it for posterity. This multitude of official records served to document Jeanne Louise Calment's position as the oldest person in the world. Many other persons had been so-named, but she was the first whose claim was authenticated by official records.

These records rested quietly in the archives for many years. During two World Wars she lived the life of a bourgeois housewife : she had one child, a daughter who married and who also had one child, a son. Blessed with good health and a comfortable life style, Jeanne Calment appears to have led a full and energetic life. As a young wife she joined her husband in his favorite sport of trap shooting; she was often seen dashing about Arles, running up the steps of the cathedral for her daily attendance at Mass.

After the birth of her daughter the only other event recorded in her Livret de Famille was the death of her husband. Fernand was gone, her daughter dead at the age of 37, her grandson killed in an auto accident when Jeanne was 88. The grandson left a widow but there were no great-grandchildren. Suddenly, it seemed, she was alone. She had outlived everyone. On her 120th birthday she said, "I am the one God forgot to take."

At the age of 85 she joined a fencing class; she continued to ride her bicycle until the age of 100. Daily Mass was still a part of her life, as well as a weekly visit to the cemetery. When she was 90, however, she sold her home.

It was sold en viager, a system peculiar to France. The buyer agrees to pay a monthly fixed sum of money to the seller for the rest of the seller's life. The amount is an actuarial calculation reached by using the market value of the property and the life expectancy of the seller. The contract stipulated that the payments were to be made to the widow of Jeanne's grandson and that the buyer have possession of the dwelling.

In 1965, $500 was a hefty monthly payment. However, the buyer, Andre-Francois Raffray, a 47-year-old notaire, may have taken comfort in the fact that Madame Calment was 90 - surely she would be called to Heaven within a few years?

But Jeanne continued to be seen in Arles for another ten years. Shortly after her 100th birthday she moved into a maison de retraite in Arles. Poor Andre-Francois - one does not wish to think of a person's death but Madame Calment was now over 100 and a maison de retraite, perhaps, meant failing health? Peut-être.

Jean Louise Calment bloomed in her new residence. She remained in good mental and physical health. After a few years she became a celebrity, first because of her age, then in her own right. She was charming, appearing often before the press and celebrating her birthday on national television. She was bright and alert, always with a memorable bon mot. Once, asked about the effects of aging, she quipped, "I've only one wrinkle and I am sitting on it."

Andre-Francois Raffray, meanwhile, continued his monthly payments. He died in 1995, having paid twice the market value of Jeanne's home. His son inherited the home - and the payments. On hearing of Raffray's death, Jeanne's comment was: "In life, sometimes, one makes a bad business transaction."

The last time she appeared on national television was on her 121st birthday. She was visibly frailer than she had been the year before, did not focus due to failing eyesight, and could not hear much of what was said to her. The newspapers later quoted one remark : "Everyone is gone and I am so fortunate to have the memories of my dear father. I think of him every day."

Her last birthday in February, 1997, was celebrated quietly in the maison de retraite. By this time she was confined to a wheelchair, had become blind, and was almost totally deaf. The only person she could understand was the director of the home who, elderly himself, had deferred his retirement so that he could care for Madame Calment.

She died on the 4th of August, 1997. The media descended on the little town of Arles. The funeral was very private, limited to the citizenry of Arles. As one Arlésien said, "The newspapers and the télé, they bothered her during her last years. Now she is at peace. She is ours and we will say goodbye to her ourselves."
Vaucluse Matin
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