Jeanne Calment: the supercentenarian who met Van Gogh and lived to see Tony Blair elected PM

Calment’s extraordinary longevity proves the trick to long life is a relaxed attitude towards the rules

August 21, 2018
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On Youtube there can be found a video dating from 1994—titled “Jeanne Calment”—which features an elderly woman being interviewed by a journalist. As the video opens we see the journalist leaning in to shout in the old woman’s ear: “You met Van Gogh?” She immediately responds in a loud croaky voice: “Yes.” “When did you meet him?” yells the journalist. The answer is again, immediate, and unapologetically blunt: “I met him at the end of his life," she says. "At the very end. He was ugly. He was blighted by alcohol.”

Jeanne Calment was a French supercentenarian who didn’t mince her words. In that video she is 119 years old. In another interview from the same year, she responded to a journalist’s joking suggestion that he could “perhaps” interview her again the following year, with the retort: “I don’t see why not. You don’t look so bad.” When she died at age 122 (21 years ago this month) she was the oldest person in recorded history. In fact—she still is. This year marks 30 years since she was first crowned the oldest living person. She lived for nearly another decade—and her record of 122 years has never been surpassed. But even more remarkable than the length of Calment’s life was her attitude towards it, and the lesson this could hold for us today.

Calment was born in Arles, France, in 1875 and died in 1997. Let’s put those dates into perspective. She was born ten years after the American Civil War ended, and ten years before Tolstoy’s War and Peace was first translated into English. She died the year Tony Blair was elected UK prime minister. In her lifetime she witnessed the invention of the light bulb, the telephone, the automobile, the television, the computer, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and three American presidents, both World Wars, both Boer wars, the Jazz Age, Hiroshima, birth control, the United States Black Civil Rights movement and the rise of the internet. That’s scratching the surface. A rendition of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” would constitute a single chapter in Calment’s memoir.

Another way to put those dates into perspective could be to look at her peers, which is partly why the Van Gogh connection is so intriguing. Calment met Vincent Van Gogh when she was 13 years old. Her future husband owned a paint shop in Arles—where Calment sometimes helped out—and the then-unknown painter came in a few times to buy canvases. Recalling these meetings, Calment punctures any inkling of romanticism by detailing Van Gogh’s ugly appearance, offensive smell and “rude” demeanour. She also claims that he frequented the brothels around the town—not so that he could have sex with the prostitutes (too expensive) but because they sold him cheap booze.

The fact that Calment met Van Gogh is undeniably extraordinary. As a historical figure, he seems to belong to a completely separate, rural fragment of human history—a period totally incompatible with the post-WWII televisual age. The anecdote is also attractive because of Van Gogh’s obscurity. A large portion of his contemporary fame stems from the fact that he was a complete unknown in his lifetime: no one knew of him, let alone personally knew him, surely. It’s genuinely jaw-dropping to think that Calment happened to bump into Ol’ Vincent, the rude smelly drunkard, in a way that it wouldn’t be if she’d mixed with, say, Queen Victoria or Victor Hugo.

Still, Calment’s life is intriguing in its own right—and you can see why she might have become impatient with the Van Gogh line of questioning. After growing up in Arles, she married her double-second cousin Fernand in 1896 (the year after the Oscar Wilde trial) at the age of 21. He was a wealthy shop owner, and they lived in the town in a large set of apartments. Theirs was a moderately active lifestyle: they enjoyed playing the piano, fencing, playing tennis, roller-skating, and cycling. Indeed, cycling was a particular passion of Jeanne’s: she rode a bicycle through Arles until she was 100.

“She was born ten years after the American Civil War ended, and ten years before Tolstoy’s  War and Peace was first translated into English”
Such a long life proved both a blessing and a curse. Calment outlived her husband, who died after eating poisoned cherries in 1942, and she never remarried. She also outlived her daughter, Yvonne, who died of pneumonia aged 36. Following her daughter’s death, Yvonne’s son (Jeanne’s grandson) was taken into Jeanne’s care—but he, too, died in a car crash in 1960. With no relatives left, she then began a renting contract with a lawyer, agreeing that on the condition that he paid her 2,500 francs a month, he would inherit her house when she died. Unfortunately for him—alas—she outlived him too: he died in 1995, aged 77. Though Calment often came across as flippant, she was evidently also introspective and thoughtful. A Christian all her life, she would often pray in the mornings, asking God why she had outlived all her family and inheritors.

If this illustrates the sad, lonely flipside to being a supercentenerian, then Calment’s day-to-day attitude didn’t reflect it. She was sanguine and—despite her deflationary wit—gracious towards those who knew her. On her 100th birthday, she walked to the house of every person in Arles who had wished her a happy birthday to thank them for doing so. Such an anecdote demonstrates the extent to which she was in great mental and physical shape—though it should come with the footnote that good health appears to have been incidental. She ate two pounds of chocolate a week, and had dessert with every meal. She smoked from the ages of 21 to 117, and it wasn’t until that age (117) that she also begrudgingly gave up her daily glass of port. The threat of bad health evidently wasn’t a concern, and even when it landed she appeared relatively indifferent. On her 120th birthday, she told reporters: “I see badly, I hear badly, I can’t feel anything, but everything’s fine.”

What is particularly attractive about Calment is not just her lust for life and its forbidden pleasures (recap: she smoked for 96 years). It is also her lack of narcissism. In interviews she comes across as witty, frank, and spryly self-effacing, as though vaguely amused by the media attention. There is no sense of a single-minded individualist desperately clinging to her twilight years—as she might be painted in a Hollywood biopic. Rather, she seems like someone who happened to get lucky in the numbers game, and is now trying to get as much of a kick out of life as possible. “I waited 110 years to get famous,” she wise-cracked in 1995. “I intend to enjoy it.”

There are various theories as to why Calment lived for so long. She herself attributed it to laughter and her intake of olive oil; others have offered equally niche suggestions, such as her sugar-rich diet. You could scrutinise these endlessly, but perhaps the most appealing theory is that she was impervious to stress. Medical researcher Jean-Marie Robin, who worked with Calment’s doctor on a biography, has said that: “she was someone who, constitutionally and biologically speaking, was immune to stress.” That Jeanne put the “calm” in Calment is in some respects unsurprising. Surviving two world wars and outliving all your relatives probably gives you a bit of perspective. But hers is an outlook which nevertheless contrasts starkly with the neuroticism of current attitudes towards the extension of lifespans.
“I see badly, I hear badly, I can’t feel anything, but everything’s fine”
Perhaps one of the reasons you’re reading this article is because you think it might offer some tips on how to live to 122. That wouldn’t be an unfair assumption. A preoccupation with life-extension can be seen pretty much everywhere at the moment: from scientific bids to cure ageing, to the so-called millennial obsession with healthy living. A particularly extreme manifestation of this comes in the form of transhumanism. In his brilliant book To Be A Machine, Mark O’Connell explores the attitudes and theories of transhumanists. These are people who—using advances in robot technology—are currently working on ways to stay alive forever. If you think this sounds like a science fiction cult only interesting to a few Silicon Valley wackheads, you’re wrong—many rich and influential people are funnelling money into research that they believe will keep them alive for at least another thousand years.

Are they going to succeed? Doubt it. But what’s fascinating about the book is not so much the probability of the experiments as the thinking behind them. The lives of transhumanists are dominated by a fixation with longevity—with an obsession to extend life indefinitely. Or to put it another way: the attempt to stay alive for longer is what (somewhat paradoxically) constitutes their entire existence. In some respects this is a natural aspect of the human condition—whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother, staying alive, staying alive is a continual subconscious propeller—but the transhumanist attitude pushes it into conscious territory: theirs is a front-of-the-mind, all-consuming, neurotic preoccupation.

Our longest-living human, Jeanne Calment seemed fairly unconcerned with life-extending methods—and enjoyed hers all the more for it. The supercentenarian had an Epicurean streak (all nice things in moderation) and a generous capacity for self-forgiveness. One of her catchphrases was: “If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.” In an age of anxiety and perfectionism, it helps to take a leaf out of Calment’s book. Kick back, stop counting, turn off your phone, have a glass of port. And if you can’t do anything about it—eh, don’t worry about it.