Obituary: Jeanne Calment

She was born a year before the Battle of the Little Bighorn and lived to be a star (perhaps unwittingly) of rap music and the Internet. The death yesterday in Arles of Jeanne Calment, at the age of 122, deprived humanity of its oldest known member.

She had lived in Arles all her life and had met, as a young woman, an obscure painter called Vincent Van Gogh (before he lost his ear). He was, she recalled in one of her many media interviews of recent years, "as ugly as a louse" and "he stank".

Calment remained mentally acute, even playful, almost to the end. "I only ever had one wrinkle and I'm sitting on it," she once said. The one thing she never seemed able to explain satisfactorily was why she lived so long, outliving her husband by more than half a century and even, tragically, her only grandson by 34 years. She put her longevity down to a large consumption of olive oil, but that explanation never seemed to satisfy her increasingly large number of media admirers. It was only in 1995, at the age of 120, that she was persuaded by her doctor to give up smoking and her Sunday glass of port.

In recent years Calment became a public property to a degree that was disturbing, although it never seemed to worry her. "One hundred and twenty-two years? Can anyone beat that?" she asked a reporter from Le Figaro at her last birthday in February.

Last year she was made the star of a four-track compact disc, Time's Mistress, in which she told the story of her life over a musical background ranging from rap to farandole. She was shown (allegedly) how to work a computer and helped to set up her own website on the Internet. It was these unlikely events which prompted a regional court to place her under its guardianship to protect her "from the problems that fame can bring".

Jeanne Calment spent the first 115 or so years of her life in almost complete obscurity and, by her own account, contentment. She was born into a well-off family in Arles on 21 February 1875. She was married at the age of 21 to a cousin, Fernand Calment. They had one daughter and a grandson, who died in a road accident in 1963.

Until 1985 - when she was 110 - Calment lived alone, looking after herself, in her apartment in the centre of Arles. In 1965, a local lawyer purchased her home (she was then 90) on the understanding that it would remain hers for life. The price was 2,500 francs a month until she died. The lawyer himself died two years ago, aged 77.

She was recognised in 1993 by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest member of the human race who could properly authenticate her birthdate. In October 1995, she became the oldest person ever recorded.

At her last birthday in February, Jeanne Calment, by then blind and almost deaf, was asked if she wanted to go on until the end of the century. "No, I've had enough," she replied.

Jeanne Louise Calment: born Arles, France 21 February 1875; married 1896 Fernand Calment (died 1942; one daughter deceased); died Arles 4 August 1997.

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