Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over nine years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. In this blog post, Duncan searches GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives to uncover the astonishing story of Jeanne Louise Calment – the only human in history verified to have lived 120 or more years!
Jeanne Louise Calment was born 21 February 1875 in Arles, France. She lived a remarkably full life and remained vibrant to the end, passing away on 4 August 1997 at the incredible age of 122 years, 164 days! Her entire lifespan is well documented with census and other records, and she is the only human in history verified to have lived 120 or more years.
Jeanne was treasured in her hometown of Arles, where she lived her entire life. After the oldest woman on earth died the deputy mayor of Arles, Michel Vauzelle, commented in her obituary:
She was the living memory of our city. Her birthdays were a sort of family holiday, where all the people of Arles gathered around their big sister.
As recounted in her obituary, Jeanne met Vincent van Gogh when selling art supplies to him at her father’s shop in 1888. She described him as “dirty, badly dressed, and disagreeable.” More than a century later, she made a brief appearance in the 1990 film Vincent and Me – becoming, at the age of 114, the oldest person to ever appear in a movie.
Jeanne didn’t have to change her last named when she married Fernand Nicolas Calment, her double cousin. According to Wikipedia, this situation occurred because their paternal grandfathers were brothers and their paternal grandmothers were also sisters, making them cousins on both sides.
Longevity ran in Jeanne’s family. Her father, Nicolas Calment (1838-1931) died just six day shy of 93; her mother, Marguerite Gilles (1838-1924) lived to be 86; and her brother, Francois Calment (1865-1962) lived to be 97.
However, the longevity line ended with Jeanne. She and her husband Fernand had one daughter, Yvonne, who died at the age of 35 of pneumonia leaving behind a young son, Frederic. Jeanne raised the little boy and he became a doctor before dying at age 36 in a car accident in 1963. Her husband had died back in 1942, so Frederic’s death left Jeanne entirely without family.
In 1965, at the ripe old age of 90, Jeanne sold her apartment. The buyer, Andre-Francois Raffray, must have thought he was making a great deal by purchasing it on contingency. Instead of paying the full amount upfront, he agreed to pay the elderly woman 2,500 francs per month until she died. But it was more of a gamble than he anticipated! After paying her faithfully for 30 years he died first, in 1995, and then his widow continued making the payments until Jeanne died in 1997.
Throughout Jeanne’s life, she remained positive. On the occasion of her 116th birthday, she stated:
I think I’ll probably die laughing.
Two years later, on her 118th birthday, this headline writer dryly noted “She’s in her very, very late teens.” The article reports:
Her doctors say her memory and sense of humor remain keen.
As Calment continued aging, reporters kept asking her about her remarkable longevity. As her obituary reports:
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.”
When she died, the town of Arles mourned. As Jeanne’s obituary reports:
In Arles, the flag at city hall was at half-staff Monday. Groups of people lingered in the streets to chat about Calment’s life and death.
“We ended up believing she was immortal,” said Felix Ramadier, a retired worker.
“It’s a bit of our heritage that went away today,” baker Andre Pons said.
What must it have been like to live to be the oldest person ever? Without a doubt, Jeanne had some interesting stories to share. What are you doing today to keep your recollections of the past alive for future generations? Please tell us in the comments section.
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