The Real Story Of Jeanne Calment, The French Woman Controversially Recognized As The Oldest Person To Ever Live

Published April 3, 2024

Reported to have lived 122 years and 164 days, Jeanne Calment was allegedly the longest-living human of all time — despite heavy consumption of chocolate, cigarettes, and red wine.

Jeanne Calment spent her life ignoring doctors’ advice for longevity. She smoked, she drank, she ate excessive amounts of sugar and red meat, and she never ate breakfast, save for maybe a cup or two of coffee with biscuits.

She also lived to be 122 years and 164 days old.

Throughout her long life, from her birth in France in 1875 to her death in 1997, Jeanne Calment broke several records, all of them after she had spent a century on earth.

At 111, she became the oldest living person in France, and at 112, she became the oldest living person in the world. At 114, she became the oldest actress to ever appear in a film when she had a brief spot in the 1990 film Vincent and Me. At 120, she became the first person ever verified to exceed 120 years, and the following year she released a rap album aptly titled “Mistress of Time.”

Jeanne Calment

Jean-Pierre Fizet/Getty ImagesJeanne Calment smoking a cigarette.

Finally, at 122, she was granted the title of the oldest person ever.

However, some have claimed that Calment’s title may in fact be a hoax, and that her daughter assumed her identity in 1934. So, what is the true story behind the world’s oldest person?

Who Was Jeanne Calment?

Jeanne Calment first gained fame when she turned 111 and broke the oldest living person record. In an interview about her shocking age, she revealed that she had only moved into a nursing home the previous year, and that until the age of 110, she was living on her own.

There were, of course, a number of factors that helped Calment live so long. Longevity expert Jean-Marie Robine, who was one of the gerontologists who helped validate Calment’s age, shared some of her secrets with CNBC, leading by saying, “We have to keep in mind that a big part of the longevity of Jeanne Calment is due to just chance because it’s just so exceptional.”

Jeanne Calmert Drinking

Eric Fougere/Getty ImagesJeanne Calment on her 120th birthday.

Calment grew up wealthy, which afforded her certain privileges that weren’t commonplace among the young girls of her time. For example, she remained in school until she was 16, then took further private classes in cuisine, art, and dance — all before getting married at 20.

Even after, Robine noted that Calment “never worked.” She regularly had someone at home helping her, never had to cook for herself, and even had other people do her shopping for her.

And despite Calment’s fondness for cigarettes, she didn’t start smoking until after she was married – and allegedly didn’t care for it at first. In fact, she didn’t smoke for the majority of her life; she picked it up when she was in a nursing home at 112 years old.

For the most part, Calment was free to spend her time traveling and attending social events. As Robine explained, “She was discovering this fascinating world at the turn of the 19th and 20th century.” She even traveled to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower as it was being constructed.

But regardless of her circumstances, it’s astoundingly impressive that she lived to be 122 years old. It may have been some stroke of luck, or perhaps her obsession with olive oil and cheap red wine actually enabled her to live longer.

When Jeanne Calment died at age 122, she was 4’6″ tall, weighed 88 pounds, and despite being almost fully blind, was in relatively good health considering her age.

How She Was In Shockingly Good Health For Her Age

Throughout her time in the nursing home, Calment participated in several supercentenarian studies, during which doctors noted that she consistently moved faster, had better mental capabilities, and was generally healthier than even many people who were decades younger than she was.

Calment credited her long life and youthful glow to her diet and active lifestyle.

According to the book Reviews on New Drug Targets in Age-Related Disorders, every day in her old age, Calment would wake at 6:45 a.m. and start her morning with prayer. Then, she’d sit in her armchair and do gymnastics while wearing headphones, which included arm and leg exercises and finger flexing. Then she’d bathe — without help from her caretakers — and finish getting ready by dousing her body in olive oil.

“All my life I’ve put olive oil on my skin and then just a puff of powder,” Calment once said. “I could never wear mascara, I cried too often when I laughed.”

For lunch, she’d have rich foods like braised beef or duck, according to the book Jeanne Calment, the Secret of Longevity Unravelled. She regularly smoked cigarettes and drank port wine daily. Until she was 119 years old, she ate about two pounds of chocolate per week.

When she could, she’d cover her meals in olive oil, attributing her health to an abundance of it, inside and out. She was still eating sweets and drinking cheap red wine until her death in 1997 and had only quit smoking at the age of 117.

“I took pleasure when I could,” she said, according to the Guardian. “I acted clearly and morally and without regret. I’m very lucky.”

To some, Calment’s claims seemed too amazing to be true. Naturally, scientists were fascinated by her. Was she a one-in-a-billion outlier, or could her longevity be replicated? Or, as one 2019 study suggested, was her story a complete lie?

Could Jeanne Calment Actually Have Been Her 99-Year-Old Daughter Yvonne?

As Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2019, an investigation by Nikolay Zak and colleagues from the Moscow Center For Continuous Mathematical Education examined Calment’s various claims throughout her life and constructed a timeline that may suggest her story was not what it seemed.

In short, the paper suggested that Jeanne Calment died in 1934, when she was 59 years old, and that her daughter, Yvonne, assumed her identity and died at 99 in 1997. As conspiratorial as the claim sounds, Zak and colleagues did provide substantial evidence to support it — though much of it is circumstantial.

Yvonne Calment

Public DomainA portrait of Yvonne Calment, often incorrectly presented as a photo of Jeanne Calment at 22-years-old.

For example, the researchers presented photographs of both Jeanne and Yvonne that illustrated how closely the two resembled one another. It was listed in 1934 that Yvonne had died of pneumonia, leaving behind her son Frédéric and her husband, Joseph Charles Frédéric Billot.

Shortly after, Jeanne moved in with them. Billot never remarried, which, Zak and the researchers argue, could have been due to the fact that his wife didn’t actually die.

They also pointed to an interview in which Jeanne Calment mentioned a maid who took her to school. They argued that that couldn’t have been true, because records show that the maid was 10 years younger than Jeanne. She could, however, have taken Yvonne to school.

Zak pointed out a number of other red flags and inconsistencies in Jeanne Calment’s story. For instance, Yvonne’s death certificate had been signed by a woman “sans profession,” not a doctor or coroner. Jeanne also had her family archival material destroyed.

Jeanne Calment At Age 20

Public DomainJeanne Calment at age 20.

Of course, some experts have argued back against Zak’s claims, questioning how such a convoluted conspiracy could possibly have been carried out. Jean-Marie Robine called Zak’s evidence “incredibly shaky” and said that it “rests on nothing.”

Moreover, a significant number of people, including Calment’s family, friends, and neighbors, would have needed to perpetuate this lie.

Zak argued, however, that Calment spent a large amount of time in the 1930s outside the city of Arles, and that the chaos of World War II would have provided Calment the perfect opportunity to solidify her new identity.

“World War II brought chaos with it,” Zak wrote, “and after the war, it all settled as if Madame Calment was always Madame Jeanne Calment.”

Zak’s claim has yet to be confirmed, and more research would be required to verify it, but it does raise questions about the validity of Calment’s status as the “world’s oldest person.”

After reading about Jeanne Calment, the world’s oldest verified person, read about the richest person in history, Mansa Musa. Then, check out some of the world’s oldest structures.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Serena, Katie. "The Real Story Of Jeanne Calment, The French Woman Controversially Recognized As The Oldest Person To Ever Live.", April 3, 2024, Accessed May 25, 2024.