As secrets unfolded about Jeanne Calment's 122 years, researchers have experienced many twists and turns. Years have been spent searching for the key to this mystery, but was the answer just below their noses all along?
A Far From Humble Beginning
This mystery began on February 21, 1875, in Arles, a city in the South of France. Jeanne Calment was born to a well-known shipbuilder and was no stranger to luxury. In her early 20's, she married Fernand Calment, her second cousin.
Fernand provided a posh lifestyle for the couple, including a home above his family's department store. Instead of working, Jeanne kept herself occupied by playing tennis and caring for her daughter, Yvonne, born in 1898. Jeanne wasn't one to offer assistance in the store, but she expected people to take it when she did.
“I Haven’t Forgotten the Pair of Slaps”
An Arles local recalled an experience at the Calments' store to the New York Times; "Madame Calment wanted to impose her taste on me." She continued, "Stubborn, I stuck with my choice [of fabric], replying in a tone that didn't please her." Apparently, Jeanne sensed an attitude that she did not appreciate.
"I haven't forgotten the pair of slaps," expressed the woman. That day in the store, Jeanne ensured that the girl, who was young at the time, would likely never return for more fabric. France's economy soon plummeted due to WWI and threatened the Calments' store and lavish lifestyle.
The Dragon of Arles
Jeanne had a fiery personality. In her later life, she was referred to as a "dragon" and "la comandante" in her nursing home. Calment was an extraordinarily active and disciplined woman. But, she was not very well-liked by everyone. In fact, she was described by nursing home aids as a "tough cookie."
Calment was rather particular about the way she lived. She demanded that her nursing home bed be made up like a hotel's. She also adhered to a meticulous schedule that added work to everyone's plates. Arles locals were equally impressed by and scared of Jeanne, but as her story unfolds, we learn this was actually for a good reason.
A Strict Routine
Jeanne moved into Maison de Lac nursing home at the age of 109 in 1985. As she settled into her new home, she refused to allow others to determine her activities. Thus, she created a strict schedule for herself that began each day at 6:45 am. First, Calment would look out her window and pray, thanking God for waking her up.
Next came daily morning chair gymnastics, followed by a breakfast of coffee with milk and rusks. Jeanne then bathed herself and ate lunch, followed by dessert, which she ate after every meal. Her schedule then called for a short nap, visits to neighbors, and dinner. Calment ended each day with a sharp 10:00 pm bedtime.
A Savvy Businesswoman
Jeanne's strictness led her to live a highly disciplined financial lifestyle. In 1965, a notary offered to purchase her apartment under the French law, "en viager." The law states that a buyer is to make monthly payments on the property until the seller passes. But, little did they know, this plan would substantially backfire.
Documents were signed when Jeanne was 90-years-old which led the notary to believe the apartment would soon be his. But as it turned out, he was merely paying Jeanne's rent. The notary passed away in 1995 without ever receiving the apartment's keys. Calment had outsmarted one person, but she had many more secrets up her sleeve.
A Visit From Van Gogh
Calment loved to tell stories about her life. However, the amount of truth behind them was unknown to most. One intriguing story included a visit from Vincent Van Gogh, the famous painter. As Jeanne told the tale, Van Gogh visited the Calment family store in 1888. However, he was "Very ugly. Ugly like a louse," she insisted.
Other details of the chance meeting grew hazy. Calment claimed that her father took care of the artist. However, this seemed odd to researchers seeing as though he was a shipbuilder and worked outside the store. The story's details were contradicting. Was this age-related forgetfulness, or was the truth finally slipping out?
Jeanne’s Century Milestone
For her 100th birthday, Jeanne received a customary visit from the Mayor of Arles, as milestones like this did not often come around. The Mayor, however, was considerably taken aback when he witnessed Jeanne's incredible mobility. Her clear-mindedness curiously showed no signs of dementia, even after a century of life.
He noted that Calment "Seemed 20 years younger" and was surprised that she rarely needed assistance getting around. Her miraculous condition sparked peculiarity in many researchers. They wondered if the dapper woman was the age she'd claimed or if she was hiding something far greater. The facts didn't seem to add up.
Mistakes in Memory
The story of Jeanne's encounter with Van Gogh was one of many that she couldn't recall. When questioned about large events in history throughout her life, such as Arles' 1884 cholera outbreak, Calment did not remember. And later, she confused her husband and her father with one another.
While some of these slip-ups could be chalked up to Jeanne's age, some forgotten details seemed selective. These mental mistakes in information led researchers to believe that Calment was withholding details from a bigger story. Their mission? To find out the truth.
Tragedy Strikes The Calments
In the 1930s, tragedy struck the Calment family. Yvonne contracted tuberculosis, and unfortunately, negative social stigmas accompanied the disease at the time. Arles locals later rumored that she was sent to a sanatorium outside of the city. As Yvonne's health declined, the Calment's were struck again. This time, by insurance taxes.
With the deaths of her father and mother-in-law, Jeanne had a hard time paying rising taxes. The Calments couldn't deny it; They, like France's economy, were struggling. Inheritance taxes jumped from 5% to nearly 25%. This caused devastation, but if Yvonne passed away, the family might be able to maneuver around paying.
Bad News Piles Up
Alas, 1934 began a series of losses that would soon leave Jeanne completely alone. After a tiring battle with tuberculosis, Yvonne passed away, likely due to disease complications. Interestingly, Calment's health records showed that she also had the disease, but she mysteriously remained in perfect health.
After Yvonne's passing, Jeanne and Fernand raised their grandson as their own. But, tragedy struck again when Fernand passed away due to a curious poisoning. He had mysteriously eaten tainted cherries, but where did the dangerous fruit come from? Who would want to cause harm to the Calment family? The answers had to be found.
Jeanne Was All Alone
Following Fernand's passing, Joseph, Jeanne's son-in-law, moved into her apartment with her. This seemed odd to some, as Jeanne had made it very clear that she was capable of caring for herself. Nevertheless, the situation was written off as a caretaking relationship. But soon, Joseph was gone.
Calment lost yet another family member when Joseph suddenly passed away in 1963, but that's not all. Yvonne's son passed away a few months later. This time, Jeanne had been left entirely alone. She had outlived her husband, grandson, and son-in-law. Was this a string of horrible luck or something larger starting to unfold?
Several Strange Burials
As news of Jeanne's tragic year spread outside of Arles, intriguing details about Yvonne's burial came to light. The Calments owned a family grave in Arles where many generations had been buried. But, strangely, Yvonne's name was missing from the gravestone.
Locals argued that the absence of Yvonne's name was due to the gravestone being revamped during the 1960s. But, researchers and scientists weren't convinced and later discovered some more strange occurrences. Jeanne was buried with "Violent haste" when she passed away, which many felt was an attempt to keep secrets hidden.
A Confusing Paper Trail
When the 1931 census records were released, researchers had a field day. Not only was Yvonne's name missing from the family plot, but the census fell curiously absent of it as well. Some believed this to be a simple technical error made during the transition from handwritten to typed notes. But, others had theories of their own.
Many believe Yvonne's name was absent from the census because she took Jeanne's identity. Her death certificate listed January 19, 1934, as the date of her passing. However, the signature's witness was not a coroner. In fact, the stranger was from several villages away. But, what did this mean regarding Jeanne's death?
Suspicion from Russia
When Jeanne passed away in 1997, a team of Russian researchers, Nikolay Zak, geriatrician Valery Novoselov, and genealogist Yuri Deigin gathered to study her longevity. Despite all of the interviews and countless doctor's examinations, the majority of people were still confused.
The researchers began gathering information that could potentially squash rumors surrounding Jeanne's recoded age of death. After countless hours of work, the team concluded that it was statistically unlikely that Calment reached the age of 122. A theory was then announced that sent Arles into hysteria.
A Shocking Hypothesis
Researchers Zak, Novoselov, and Deigin came to a controversial conclusion. They hypothesized that it was in truth Jeanne Calment who'd passed away in 1934, not her daughter, Yvonne. Zak declared that Yvonne must have been impersonating her mother for more than 60 years.
This confusing hypothesis sent a ripple of mixed feelings through Arles. Many community members were torn between believing the woman they thought they knew or trusting the researchers. Considering scientists' deep dive into Jeanne's life, people were understandably disturbed.
A Picture Worth A Thousand Lies
Genealogist Yuri Deigin began sorting through Jeanne's records and old photographs with a fine-tooth comb. He was determined to prove that she was much younger than 122 when she passed away. Deigin compared old and modern records and looked for evidence of proof for the researcher's theory.
When comparing several photos, Deigin noticed something peculiar. He realized that the facial, eye, and nose structures varied. Compared to images of Jeanne as an older woman, the photos simply did not match. Intrigued, the researcher was determined to dig deeper and find the truth.
Suspicion Continues to Grow
People from far and wide were impressed by Jeanne's active lifestyle, but it made many doctors skeptical. Geriatrician Valery Novoselov dedicated innumerable hours studying photographs and videos of Calment. He shared that more information was found regarding Jeanne's recorded age than society was aware of.
Novoselov believed that Calment's skin and muscular systems were better than those usually seen in older adults. Jeanne's ability to hunt for sport, play tennis, and move about without assistance left him confused. Novoselov agreed to share his findings with other skeptics, launching a formal investigation.
Yuri Deigin found a copy of an official identification card from the 1930s. Jeanne was supposedly in her 50s during that time, but upon closer inspection, Calment appeared much younger. However, this was not the only discrepancy. Her eye color at the time of her passing was green, but the document listed them as dark-colored.
Jeanne's recorded height also differed. The I.D. card listed her as 152 centimeters tall, but she was 150 centimeters at her death. This shrinkage is typical in people of old age. However, researcher Nicolay Zak noticed yet another, more significant difference: The penmanship of the "J" in her signature.
Who Else Was Involved?
If Yvonne Calment was, in fact, impersonating her mother until her death, many wondered how that secret could have been kept in such a close-knit community. The shocking answer can be found in the book Insurance and Its Secrets by author Jean-Pierre Daniel.
Daniel had a shocking discovery: The insurer paying Calment's life annuities was aware that Yvonne was collecting payments, not Jeanne. This meant that he was aware Yvonne had assumed her mother's identity. And, insurers knew the family was committing insurance fraud. Someone, somewhere, decided to keep the massive secret.
Scientists Sink Their Teeth In
Many scientists believe that Jeanne's life holds the key to unlocking secrets behind health and aging in the medical world. They were dumbstruck that Calment had not fallen victim to age-related diseases such as diabetes or Alzheimer's. Even at the age of 100, her ability to win a tennis match left scientists in amazement.
Calment had a lifelong smoking habit until the age of 117. She also indulged in chocolate for dessert and a nightly glass of Port wine. Many scientists wondered if Jeanne's DNA held explanations behind the deflection of these illnesses. Researchers were hooked and sunk their teeth into the science of aging.
Calment Gained International Attention
In 1997, news of Calment's death made international headlines and sparked worldwide debate over her case's facts versus fiction. Russian researchers publicly disagreed with their French counterparts over the findings. And, as scientists pushed, an investigation into Jeanne's DNA and blood sample gained the attention of many.
Dr. Aubrey De Grey, a professional in anti-aging, believed Jeanne's blood sample should be tested. Not just to find the truth in this case but to learn more about aging processes at large. Dr. De Grey joined Deigin for a conference where supporting evidence that Yvonne had become Jeanne was presented.
The Case Became Personal
Residents of Arles prided themselves on being a close-knit community. They took the Calment accusations personally and felt it was their duty to defend Jeanne's legacy. A Facebook group called "The Counter-Investigation of the Jeanne Calment Investigation" was launched. It held over 1,500 members, including Nikolay Zak.
The group was flooded with photos and stories. Zak believed the information could serve as evidence and might even confirm Calment did live to be 122. It was commonly reported that Jeanne was not well-liked. Many believed the Arles community would've been unlikely to hide a hoax if there was one. The case then went up in smoke.
Jeanne’s Story Goes up in Flames
Even when it didn't seem possible, more mysterious twists and turns appeared. Thanks to newer findings, it was discovered that before entering the Maison de Lac nursing home in 1985, Calment had an unusual request. Jeanne called on her heiress, Madame Bigonnet, to burn all of her cherished photographs and documents.
The request was issued just after the Arles archives department requested Jeanne's artifacts. Nikolay Zak hypothesized the action was "A result of cold calculation and acute necessity instead of an emotional act." Many researchers found this to be an extraordinary situation and stood by to witness what would happen next.
Suspicious Circumstances Grow
In addition to the Van Gogh visit's confusion, Jeanne couldn't keep track of the family maid, Marthe Fousson. In an interview, Calment recalled being escorted to school by Fousson. But this didn't seem plausible when looked into. It was found that Marthe was actually 10 years younger than Jeanne, making the story impossible.
It was later discovered that Yvonne’s husband never remarried. Joseph was widowed at 42. There was time to remarry, yet he chose to move in with his mother-in-law instead. Many researchers argued that the pair meshed so well because Yvonne, his wife, had been pretending to be Jeanne. But this isn’t the entire story.
Did Jeanne Coach Yvonne?
Jeanne continued to shock doctors with her ability to recall specific life events, despite her seasoned age. When asked, she could remember the names of her seamstress, piano teacher, and even the producers of her wedding cutlery. However, despite the plethora of information she shared, researcher Nickolay Zak was not convinced.
Zak discovered that French investigators admitted that they occasionally "re-injected" details into their dialogue with Jeanne. The investigators said they used this tactic in hopes of activating "dormant memories." But, Zak believes that Yvonne, acting as her deceased Mother, was coached to memorize specific details.
Russian Researchers Push Forward
Despite French government officials and Arles locals' reactions, Russian researchers continued their search for the truth. According to Zak, many believed the entire situation was a planned hoax and medical cover-up. Before long, frustration about this case spread from France throughout the rest of the world.
A growing desire-turned-demand to test Jeanne’s blood sample or even exhume her body spread throughout France. What was holding them back? Calment had donated blood to a group of French researchers in the 1990s, giving scientists what they needed. A fight for the ability to put it to the test was in motion.
Testing Jeanne’s Genes
Jeanne's blood sample is apparently stored at Foundation Daussant, where she had previously donated. However, the act of testing the model has caused many scientists to ask ethical questions. While some feel it's necessary to prove Calment's real age and identity, others do not. The differing opinions caused a rift.
Those against the testing believe that Jeanne consented to donate her blood only for "certain purposes." This could mean that new testing might run the risk of Calment's DNA ending up in the wrong hands. This difference in opinion caused the foundation's director, Jean-François Deleuze, to refuse the sample's release.
French Scientists Double Down
In her elderly age, Jeanne seemed to avoid death, leading a French research team to follow her closely for years. Calment was monitored by her doctor, Victor Lèbre, as well as demographer Jean-Marie Robine, and gerontologist Michel Allard. Unknown to many, Robine took aspects of this case and its allegations personally.
Robine insisted the slanders on his team's careful research were absurd. So, he released a publication of his own as a public rebuttal. In it, he stated a fact that many had heard before; Jeanne was not a well-liked woman. To him, this insinuated that the Arles community would not be likely to help Calment in a supposed cover-up.
Is There an End in Sight?
From 1997 until today, French and Russian researchers continue to disagree on when Jeanne passed away. Whether it was at the age of 99 or 122, there's no denying that Calment lived a life full of twists, turns, and exciting revelations. She made dessert part of her daily routine throughout her life, and that's not all.
Jeanne witnessed technology transform the world and endured two World Wars. After, she observed the world build back up around her. To this day, Arles locals remain in good spirits, assured that there is more to be discovered. In fact, Cécile Pellegrini told The Guardian, "If it's actually true, she was really something!"
The Search For the Truth Continues
Thanks to many progressions in technology and media outlets throughout the years, Calment's story continues to intrigue people far and wide. Researchers are still hard at work laboring to obtain answers in Jeanne's DNA and what's left of her memorabilia.
The world has grown fascinated with how Jeanne Calment escaped the grip of death for so long. The intricate yet exciting details about her life continue to rack the brains of researchers around the globe. And, based on their findings thus far, they don't seem to be slowing down anytime soon.