Jeanne Calment was 122 when she died. But last year a Russian scientist claimed she was a con artist, activating an international dispute over the woman who may still brace the secret to eternal life

If time manufactures gulls of us all, you couldn’t blamed Andre-Francois Raffray for taking it more personally than most. In 1965, Raffray, a solicitor in the southern French city of Arles, thought he had hit on the real-estate version of a sure thing. The 47 -year-old had signed a contract to buy an suite from one of his patrons” en viager “: a species of property auction by which the buyer makes a monthly payment until the seller’s death, when the property becomes theirs. His client, Jeanne Calment, was 90 and sprightly for her age; she liked to surprise people by leaping from her chair at the hairdresser. But still, it couldn’t be long: Raffray only had to shell out 2,500 francs a few months and wait it out.

He never got to live there. Raffray died in 1995, aged 77, by which time Calment was 120 and one of the most famous women in France. She hadn’t lived in the areas she owned above the Maison Calment, the drapery shop once run by her husband in the heart of Arles, for a decade. Instead, as each birthday thrusting her further into the realm of the preposterous, Calment comprised tribunal at La Maison du Lac, the retirement home next to the city hospital. She had no immediate family- her husband, daughter and grandson were long dead- but journalists and local conspicuous would regularly visit for an audience.” I waited 110 times to be famous. I “ve been meaning to” constitute the most of it ,” she was reported to have said. One defendant fragment was narrating how, as a girl, she had assembled Vincent van Gogh; he was ugly and dishevelled, she said, and locals announced him” the dingo “.

The pensioner seemed blessed with the stamina of Methuselah. Still cycling at 100, she only gave up smoking at 117; her doctors concluded that she had a mental capacity equivalent to most octogenarians. Enough, at any rate, to coin the strange zinger:” I wait for death … and columnists ,” she once told a reporter. Aged 121, she recorded a rap CD, Mistress of Time. But even this “Michael Jordan of ageing”, as one geriatrician employed it, had only so much road to run. By 1996, she was in steep decline. Using a wheelchair, primarily blind and deaf, she eventually succumbed on 4 August 1997. At 122, hers was the oldest substantiated human lifespan in history.

At
At 121, Jeanne Calment secreted a rap CD, Mistress Of Time:’ I waited 110 years to be famed. I mean to realize the best possible use of it .’ Photograph: Sipa/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Some, though, believe it’s not just era that acquires chumps of us all. Last time, a Russian mathematician announced Nikolay Zak made an astonishing claim: that it was not Jeanne Calment who died in 1997, but her daughter, Yvonne. Sceptical about the degree to which Calment had outshone previous record-holders( the nearest supported claim at the time was 117 ), Zak had dug into her profile and discovered a host of inconsistencies. First published on Researchgate, a technical social networking locate, then picked up by bloggers and the Associated Press news agency, Zak’s paper claimed that Jeanne Calment had actually died in 1934; according to official records, this was when Yvonne had lost her life, aged 36, to pleurisy. At this detail, Zak alleged, her daughter assume responsibility for her identity- they searched same- and she to be maintained the pretence for more than 60 years.

When the paper proceeded viral, the French press exploded. How dare someone slur a national treasure, the woman dubbed “ la doyenne de l’humanite “? And who was this upstart Russian anyway? Zak wasn’t even a gerontologist, a specialist in ageing, but a 36 -year-old mathematics graduate who worked as a glassblower at Moscow State University and hadn’t published a paper in 10 years.

Zak redoubled down with a view to responding. He published an expanded article in the US-based journal Rejuvenation Research, in January this year. It compiled a dossier of 17 patches of biographical manifestation supporting the ” swap ” belief, including inexplicable physical differences between the young and old-time Jeanne( a change in seeing colour from “dark” to light-green) and gaps in the verbal testimonies she rendered while in the retirement home: she claimed to have met Van Gogh in her father’s shop, when Jeanne’s father had been a shipbuilder. He too claimed there had been no public festivity of Jeanne’s 100 th birthday, a key reference point in old-age validations.

As Zak admitted, there was no smoking gun; but together these bits of circumstantial testify did exhale a fair sum of fume. Crucially, he proposed a plausible motivating: that Yvonne had taken her mother’s lieu in order to avoid punishing inheritance taxes, which during the interwar period extended as high as 35%.

The debate spread through the French press and international gerontological circles, becoming increasingly heated. Numerous dismissed Zak’s switch hypothesi as Russian-sponsored” imitation information”, as the newspaper Le Parisien put it. Certainly, it seemed to be an attack on western science. As well as Calment, Zak conveyed doubts about the validation of Sarah Knauss, a Pennsylvanian insurance power director who had died in 1999, aged 119, putting her in the silver-medal position behind Calment. Was the Russian trying to sow doubt, so that his countrymen could take the lead in the gerontology province?

For the people of Arles, it was a matter of local pride. They rapidly rallied behind Calment and formed a Facebook group, the Counter-Investigation into the Jeanne Calment Investigation, to raze Zak’s pretensions. Their members included Calment’s distant relatives, and others who had known her; although some said she had been haughty and waspish, they didn’t want her honour sullied. They had easy access to the city’s archives, while Zak had never been to Arles: what could he know? He filmed back, on their open counter-investigation forum: perhaps the “Arlesiens” were just blinded by their devotions.” Note that from a distance it is obvious that the Earth is not flat ,” he wrote.

Both cliques were equally adamant. One, that the woman who died in the Maison du Lac was the longest-lived human being. The other, that she was a knack and almost inconceivably decided con artist. Which was the real Madame Calment?

***

An age of 122 seems to defy the limits of the possible. Even two decades later, with average lifespans still rising , no one has come within touching distance of Jeanne Calment. In the supercentenarian tournament- 110 and above- the three-year gap between her and Knauss might as well be an aeon.

In 1825, the British actuary Benjamin Gompertz came up with a prognosi modeling for human fatality, one which estimated that the risk of death increased exponentially with age, doubling every eight years. His “Gompertz curve” was quickly taken up by the insurance industry. In the year after a 100 th birthday, the chance of death is approximately 50%. Knowing this, Calment’s record sounds even more of a statistical long shot.

In Arles’s Trinquetaille cemetery, there is little to mark out the person with the world’s longest lucky flash, apart from the small book-shaped plinth impressed ” La doyenne de l’humanite “ on her tomb. When I visit in the last days of August, summer has checked out early; the sky is overcast, the first autumn leaves are on the sand. On the mottled, dark-grey marble of Calment’s lineage tomb stands a container of bogu chrysanthemums and a yellowing succulent. Curiously, Joseph Billot, Jeanne’s son-in-law and Yvonne’s husband, and her grandson Frederic Billot are recognized, but her daughter is not. Yet the graveyard guardian, in a hut a few metres away, assures me that Yvonne is buried with her mother.

Colette
Tintype portraits of Calment’s allies, who all dispute the scam ideology, from left. Colette Barbe, Brigitte Jajcaj and Cecile Pellegrin. Photograph: Jonathan Pierredon/ The Guardian

In a hotel plot next to Arles’s Roman amphitheatre, I encounter three the officers of the counter-investigation Facebook group: Colette Barbe, Cecile Pellegrini and Brigitte Jajcaj. I mention that it seems peculiar that Jeanne did not applied her own daughter’s identify on the family tomb; was it Yvonne who has chosen not to, trying to tell us she was still alive?” Oh, so you followed her all the way to the cemetery, then ?” jokes Barbe. Don’t overthink it, the status of women say. The grave wasn’t revamped until the 1960 s, shortly after Calment’s son-in-law and grandson died( the latter in a auto clang ); by then, Yvonne had fucking dead for 30 years, and Jeanne exclusively had the latest demises engraved.

They are an incongruous trio of investigators: Pellegrini, the group administrator, is a quick, sarcastic orator whose half-Vietnamese grandfather opened the city’s first Asian eatery; Jajcaj has swept-back grey hair, a rise shoulder tattoo and a black-tasselled padlock on a chain around her cervix; Barbe is a strong-minded bourgeoisie, vibrantly attired and draped in jewellery. The counter-investigation has 1,500 members, drawn from all over the globe, although the core group is made up of proud neighbourhoods. “[ Calment] was this elegant lady, even with a cane- an badge of Arles ,” says Jajcaj.” She held herself perfectly upright at 102, which was beautiful .”

Soon after Zak’s paper was published, the group began to scour neighbourhood repositories for evidence that subverted his theory. Distant members of the Calment and Billot pedigrees been set up their photo books and personal articles. In the spirit of open debate, Zak was also accepted on to the forum, where he to be maintained a leading commentary on the brand-new procures. He was collegiate on the surface, had recognized that he and the counter-investigation had a shared destination: the truth. But over hour they felt his attitude- asking people chase after evidence on his behalf, unfailingly use it to back up his own theory- begin to rankle.” Sometimes I get the impression that he believed to be understands our way of life and history better than us ,” says Barbe.

But digging into the past began to pay dividends. One new photograph donated by a family member demonstrated Yvonne posing on a balcony with a parasol against a mountain backdrop. Clever sleuthing with mailing-cards and Google Maps uncovered it to be part of the Belvedere sanatorium in Leysin, Switzerland- consistent with Yvonne’s diagnosis of pleurisy, often a indication of tuberculosis. Another document seemed to confirm the gravity of her circumstance: her husband, Joseph, an horde colonel, was granted five years of compassionate leave in June 1928 to look after her. Unfortunately, the sanitorium closed in 1960, and its records haven’t survived.

If the swap did take place, maintaining this story in plain sight would have compelled an extraordinary and queasy tier of misrepresentation. Yvonne would have had to share a house with Jeanne’s widower, Fernand, her own father, until his death in 1942; Fernand would have had to pass his daughter off as his wife. Yvonne would have had to force her son Frederic, seven when ” Jeanne” died, to stop calling her “Maman”.

Many others would need to have been complicit. If Zak knew either the person or persons of Arles or Jeanne Calment, the group argued, he would realise how preposterous this was. A scheme would have been difficult to maintain in a close-knit person of 20, 000, and unlikely leaved Mme Calment’s reputation as a “dragon”, says Pellegrini.” If beings had known about the forgery, they wouldn’t have protected her ,” she says.

Perhaps the most important blow from the counter-investigation group- not quite a mortal one, but close- was assaulting Zak’s suggestion of a financial intention. The Russian had claimed Yvonne was trying to escape a 35% estate tax, but the group’s investigate guided them to believe it would have been more like 6-7%- a frequency the family could have managed, with Fernand Calment’s considerable assets.

But Zak refused to budge. Merely a DNA test, either from Trinquetaille cemetery or a sample of Calment’s blood, rumoured to be stored in a Paris research institute, would reconcile the matter, he debated. But the status of women from the counter-investigation group believe he has gone too far down the rabbit puncture to consider any belief but his own.” Even if[ a DNA test] proves it was Jeanne, he’ll never countenanced it ,” says Pellegrini.” He’ll say the tests were rigged .”

***

There is some debate about “whats happening in” charges of mortality in extreme old age. Some investigates believe they continue to rise with the Gompertz curve, until the risk of fatality in a sacrificed time is absolute- with an effective ceiling to human life somewhere between 119 and 129. Others believe there is no such ceiling, thanks to a phenomenon known as” mortality deceleration “: the plateauing of the death rate after 105. But there are doubts about this plateau, more, due to the frequent misreporting of supercentenarians( largely due to clerical error, rather than fraud ). With such a small dataset even a few cases wrongdoings can skew our understanding of human restrictions( the Gerontology Research Group, based in Los Angeles, estimates that there are about 1,000 living supercentenarians ).

The validation of Jeanne Calment’s age, though, is regarded as the” gold standard” by Jean-Marie Robine, the man who helped carry it out. I gratify him at his home in the village of Pignan, precisely west of Montpellier. Long legs stretched out in aquamarine card shorts under his kitchen table, the researcher still has matinee-idol looks at 68. His work with Calment, be put into practice as a demographer for the French regime organisation Inserm( L’Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale ),” never had validating her age as a mandate ,” he interprets.” It was to validate the quality of the administrative documents that attested to her age. And from what we had at our disposal, there was nothing dubious .” He objects at the unbroken chain of 30 censuses- every five years up until 1946, then every seven to eight- that chronicle Jeanne Calment’s life in Arles.

Only one- the 1931 census- was perplexing. Yvonneis not rostered as resident in the family’s Arles apartment, which Zak takes to mean that she was already living semi-secluded in the family’s country house, 10 miles away in the village of Paradou. He argues that she would masquerade as her father, in order that Jeanne, the one who was really suffering from tuberculosis, could avoid the disease’s social stigma. Robine has a simpler explanation: that Yvonne was at the sanatorium at Leysin.

He is scathing about the Russian ideology, flatly dismissing it as “pseudo-science”. But he and his co-validator, Michel Allard, have been criticised by Zak, and by some on the counter-investigation forum, for not being more thorough in their own supports. They did, nonetheless, behavior a series of practically 40 interviews with Calment at the Maison du Lac, asking for details of her life that only she only knew. She made some slips, unsurprisingly for her age, often mixing up her father and partner.( Zak rushed on such misunderstandings in excerpts of the transcripts later published in a work .) But many other details, such as the names of damsels and coaches, largely tallied with the information recorded under censuses and academy registers.

Robine is softly spoken, but it is hard to get a word in edgeways as he builds his argument. I mention the idea that a DNA test on Calment’s blood could terminate the debate. Jeanne’s husband Fernand was her distant cousin, so Yvonne had more ancestors common to both sides of her family than her mother- something that would be visible in her DNA. Robine can scarcely hold back his indignation at the suggestion of DNA testing.” What are we going to do- precisely side it over to the Russians? To an international committee? To do what? These people are caught up in supernatural thinking- that the secret of longevity is in her genes .”

***

By August 2019, l’affaire Calment had settled into a stalemate. When I speak to Zak over Skype at his dacha on the Ukrainian border, he seems more determined than ever:” With so much opposition, I want to prove that I are quite right ,” he says. There is a flash of intellectual dignity behind his poker-face. Boyish in a blue-blooded polo shirt with tousled whisker, a slight smile sometimes violates his composure.” Some parties don’t care about facts. So they just hate those who disagree with them ,” he shrugs.

Russian
Russian mathematician Nikolay Zak at Moscow University, Nov 2019. Zak claims that Jeanne Calment been killed in 1934, and that it was her daughter, Yvonne, who died in 1997. Photograph: Maxim Sher/ The Guardian

Gerontology had originally been a hobby for Zak. He was interested in the ageing process of the naked mole-rat, live animals with an improbably long lifespan of about 30 times. But he became caught up in the Calment case after seeing contact on Facebook with Valery Novoselov, head of gerontology at the Moscow Society of Naturalists( MOIP ), who had longstanding distrusts about her. Novoselov’s suit had been based mainly on photographic analysis; he encouraged Zak, who spoke some French, to delve into other aspects, such as biographical and archival indicate. Zak says he had no intention of publishing anything- until he contacted Jean-Marie Robine about the “problems” “hes had” encountered.” He always had some forgive about why he couldn’t reply, which I thought was strange ,” says Zak.” It was this that constituted me carry on .”( Robine quarrels that he was evasive, saying he matched extensively with Zak in October 2018.)

Meanwhile, others were beginning to have doubts about Zak and Novoselov. Robert Young, who validates supercentenarians for Guinness World Records, belief the attack on Jeanne Calment is a deliberate is trying to sow doubt about western scientific procedures, is tantamount to” academic hoax “. He drawn attention to what he sees as Zak’s obstinate refusal to consider any scenario other than the swap conjecture.” Part of the technical testing method is that we need to be open to multiple possibilities, including that one’s starting position may be wrong ,” Young says.” Yet he self-declares his position to be 99.9% certain .” Zak bars that he has fully analysed the opposite scenario- that Jeanne was Jeanne- in follow-up work this year, and repudiates accusations of fraud.

As well as the lack of academic rigour in the original paper, Young believes its disproportionately high number of speaks( 70,000, when the revised version only got 1,400) might have been inflated by bots, or human intervention. Zak had already admitted controlling photographsof a young Yvonne Calment to emphasise similarities with her father. Young alleges that such sleights of hand indicate that Zak, or beings working with him, had an ulterior agenda.

Still, the button camp had arguments that couldn’t readily be dismissed. There was Calment’s odd solicit, when Arles’s repositories asked for them, that her personal articles be burned; and a 2006 account in a French manufacture newspaper of a dinner at which a client intimated that Calment’s insurers had known of the identity substitution, but no act had been taken because she was already too famed. In mid-September, Inserm exhausted an official rebuttal paper, co-authored by Robine, Allard and two others. While it didn’t address all other aspects of the Russian lawsuit, it was a cool riposte, summarising many of the counter-investigation’s discoveries, and announcing for the formal retraction of Zak’s paper.

Zak upped the bet. In an open letter sent to prominent gerontologists, longevity researchers and writers- with Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson and the White House CCed- he called again for the test of Calment’s DNA.” I don’t think such a study would be harmful to anybody ,” he argued,” while the potential benefits for discipline are huge .” Many beings recalled Zak had gone too far. One member of the board of Rejuvenation Research, which had published his revised newspaper, vacated, saying it had” humiliation the field of gerontology in both Russia and internationally “.

Back in Arles, the counter-investigation group were also wondering about the peculiar the actions of their “Russian friend”. He had been helpful at first, but in the depths of long commentary yarns he had been able to often be provocative, even goading. One member succeeded in getting Zak temporarily blocked from members of the forum on 5 March for a slanging match that culminated in the Russian calling him a “crook”. ” It’s very unpredictable ,” says Cecile Pellegrini.” Sometimes he has a sense of humour, other epoches he’s odious, and we’re forced to block him for a few days .” They speculate that more than one person might be using his account, and that Zak or the Zaks might be paid trolls.( Zak repudiates receiving any payment or corroborate from others .) But if Zak is a frontman, who might he be fronting for?

***

The theory that the Calment attack has been politically aimed is rejected by Novoselov, the gerontologist who tasked Zak with analyse her.” Look , nobody in Russia cares at all about this story ,” he says.” They couldn’t care less. There ought to have two articles in the media, and that’s it .” Novoselov says he is simply following his technical instincts, and equates the French connect to Calment to the national cult of Joan of Arc.” Their ability to believe in such fairytales is one of the fundamental reasons behind the process of creating this[ longevity] record .”

The straight-talking 57 -year-old is speaking in the canteen at the Research center for Obstetrics, Gynecology and Perinatology in Moscow, where he has just given a lecture on Calment. Having previously argued that Lenin died of syphilis rather than a stroke, Novoselov is used to courting controversy. In January, he was reported that his destination was to get Calment struck off the supercentenarians registry. Wasn’t it cavalier to do so before there was conclusive evidence?” What’s conclusive evidence if there is no material from individual patients ?” he counters.” If they showed us her medical records, then maybe we would be convinced .”

Aubrey
Aubrey De Grey, in California. He thoughts humans could live to 5,000, and requires Calment’s DNA tested. Photograph: Carlos Chavarria/ Redux/ eyevine

Novoselov wrote to Young at Guinness World Records about Calment in October 2018,” asking him to look attentively at the questions we parent “. His reply, says Novoselov, was ” a flaunt of aggressivenes by Europe against everything civilised “; Young, he says, characterised his wreak as a conspiracy guided from on high by” someone important “. But its not surprising that Novoselov’s abrasive tactics have raised eyebrows; he has menaced Young, as well as Calment’s validators, with investigation by Sledkom, the Russian FBI.

The evidence for a Russian disinformation campaign is thin, but Zak’s paper did have a second sponsor. The peer-reviewed form issued in Rejuvenation Research, the publication devoted to life-extension research revised by Aubrey de Grey, the contentious gerontologist and life-extension advocate who has claimed that, by 2100, the human lifespan could reach 5,000 times. Even if Zak doesn’t believe it, the possibility that Calment did reach 122 is tantalising for De Grey.” Anyone who is the world record holder of longevity is of interest to those of us studying the biology of ageing ,” he tells me.

Speaking on the phone from London, where he is on a layover between Berlin and his home in California, De Grey is evasive of determining whether his programme is to force the freeing of Calment’s blood sample. But he does think it should be made available for discipline:” In the interests of saving lives, used to identify more about ageing to eventually defer ageing- then that’s actually quite important .” Would he require his own study organization, Sens, to do the DNA testing? Not inevitably, he says,” but I will definitely are aware of the right kind of researchers to recommend “.

That analysis seems unlikely to happen any time soon. The Fondation Jean Dausset, a private genetic research centre in Paris, refuses even to confirm that it is keeping Jeanne Calment’s blood; just that it has a collection of biosamples it alone can use for research under anonymised situations. But Francois Schachter, the scientist who in the 1990 s founded its Chronos Project, the first genetic examination of centenarians in the world, has confirmed that her blood was taken and her DNA extracted.

Twenty years ago, the life-extension field promoted by mavericks like De Grey was outlaw discipline. Now, the landscape has changed: the technical means for ” hacking ” the human lifespan have come into being, and the sector is beginning to attract serious asset. In 2013, Google expended $1.5 bn in an entire separation, Calico, devoted to” solving fatality “. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has given millions of dollars to Sens.

But Sens, according to its annual reports, has been running at heavy loss. De Grey says it has been investing the $13 m he put into the foundation in 2011 on research for anti-ageing rehabilitations that will save” various million” lives. But it must start to pay its method; wouldn’t locking the DNA of the oldest woman in the world be a great publicity coup, as death-dodging tech billionaires pile into the sector? De Grey bats off this idea.” I get enough media attention as it is .”

If he could study Calment’s DNA, what might he expect to learn? De Grey points out that supercentenarians’ genetic information contains a high ratio of useful information,” because they have to get more things right in order to get to the age they do “. One obvious country of interest is how Calment bypassed cancer, coronary thrombosis, diabetes and other late-life killers.

Several scientists I spoke to believe that Calment’s genome should be made available for study; but they don’t are supportive of the route Zak and De Grey have seemingly attempted to force the foundation’s handwriting. One consequence of promoting the switch theory, they point out, is that they have alienated family members whose own DNA might be crucial in understanding Calment’s.

Earlier this month, a Russian news organization has declared that a woman who was purportedly 123 had died in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia. This is almost certainly hopeless- even Novoselov thinks so; payed her children’s ages, she would have given birth three times in her 50 s. But the story underscores the need for gerontology to keep its house in order.

At the time of going to press, scientists from around the world were due to discuss the impact of the Calment thing on gerontology at a special meeting in Paris. As for her mortal remains, some see the Fondation Jean Dausset might be more open to collaboration as anti-ageing science evolves- but it is unlikely to be with De Grey. Despite telling me that Jeanne Calment does not illustration high on his priorities, he plans to devote another issue of Rejuvenation Research to age validation and Calment next year.

In Arles, despite everything, the counter-investigation group are tickled by the idea that Jeanne Calment might have been a ruler fraudster.” I would really like the permutation narration to be true, like in the novels I desire reading ,” says Cecile Pellegrini.” I find that kind of thing super-exciting. If it’s actually true, she was really something !” But perhaps the doyenne has something else to school the would-be immortals of Silicon Valley: what extra disturbance would 5,000 years of reality accompanying, if we can’t get the record straight-from-the-shoulder on a single everyday lifetime?

* Additional reporting by Marc Bennetts

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