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

If time clears clowns of us all, you couldn’t blame 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 buyers” en viager “: a word of belonging sale 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 merely 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 lives 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 lunge her further into the realm of the improbable, Calment accommodated 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 correspondents and neighbourhood noticeables would regularly visit for an audience.” I waited 110 times to be famed. I mean to make the most of it ,” she was reported to have said. One party section was recounting how, as a adolescent, she had encountered Vincent van Gogh; he was ugly and dishevelled, she said, and neighbourhoods announced him” the dingo “.

The pensioner seemed consecrated with the staman 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 odd zinger:” I wait for death … and correspondents ,” she formerly told a reporter. Aged 121, she recorded a rap CD, Mistress of Time. But even this “Michael Jordan of ageing”, as one geriatrician put it, had only so much road to run. By 1996, she was in steep decline. Using a wheelchair, predominantly blind and deaf, she ultimately succumbed on 4 August 1997. At 122, hers was the oldest ratified human lifespan in history.

At
At 121, Jeanne Calment released a rap CD, Mistress Of Time:’ I waited 110 times to be far-famed. I mean to make the most of it .’ Photograph: Sipa/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Some, though, believe it’s not just season that realizes chumps of us all. Last time, a Russian mathematician announced Nikolay Zak made an astonishing claim: “that its not” Jeanne Calment who were killed in 1997, but her daughter, Yvonne. Sceptical about the degree to which Calment had outstripped previous record-holders( the nearest supported claim at the time was 117 ), Zak had dug into her biography and uncovered a multitude of inconsistencies. First published on Researchgate, a scientific social networking website, then picked up by bloggers and the Associated Press news agency, Zak’s paper claimed that Jeanne Calment are really been killed in 1934; according to official records, this was when Yvonne had lost her life, aged 36, to pleurisy. At this extent, Zak alleged, her daughter had assumed her identity- they gazed similar- and she kept up the pretence for more than 60 years.

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

Zak redoubled down in response. He produced an expanded paper in the US-based journal Rejuvenation Research, in January this year. It compiled a dossier of 17 articles of biographical sign is in favour of ” switch ” possibility, including inexplicable physical differences between the young and old-fashioned Jeanne( a change in eye emblazon from “dark” to light-green) and gaps in the verbal testimonies she imparted 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 likewise claimed there used been no public revelry of Jeanne’s 100 th birthday, a key reference point in old-age validations.

As Zak acknowledged, there was no smoking gun; but together these segments of circumstantial evidence did emit a carnival sum of inhale. Crucially, he hinted a plausible intention: that Yvonne had taken her mother’s target so as to avoid punitive inheritance taxes, which during the interwar period passed as high-pitched as 35%.

The debate spread through the French press and international gerontological cliques, are always heated. Numerous rejected Zak’s swap conjecture as Russian-sponsored” hoax report”, as the newspaper Le Parisien set it. Certainly, it seemed to be an attack on western science. As well as Calment, Zak expressed little doubt the validation of Sarah Knauss, a Pennsylvanian policy part 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 battlefield?

For the people of Arles, it was a matter of neighbourhood pride. They quickly rallied behind Calment and structured a Facebook group, the Counter-Investigation into the Jeanne Calment Investigation, to destroy Zak’s says. 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 repositories, while Zak had never been to Arles: what could he know? He shot back, on their open counter-investigation forum: perhaps the “Arlesiens” has only just been blinded by their faithfulness.” Note that from a distance it is obvious that the Earth is not flat ,” he wrote.

Both camps 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 gifted and almost inconceivably chose 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 median lifespans still rising , no one has come within touching distance of Jeanne Calment. In the supercentenarian conference- 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 prophecy prototype for human fatality, one which estimated that the risk of death increased exponentially with age, redoubling 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 roughly 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 luck stripe, apart from the small book-shaped plinth impressed ” La doyenne de l’humanite “ on her mausoleum. 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 soil. On the mottled, dark-grey marble of Calment’s lineage tomb stands a jackpot of hoax chrysanthemums and a yellowing succulent. Curiously, Joseph Billot, Jeanne’s son-in-law and Yvonne’s husband, and her grandson Frederic Billot are commemorated, but her daughter is not. Yet the graveyard guard, in a shack a few metres away, assures me that Yvonne is buried with her mother.

Colette
Tintype portraits of Calment’s followers, who all feud the hoax conjecture, from left. Colette Barbe, Brigitte Jajcaj and Cecile Pellegrin. Photograph: Jonathan Pierredon/ The Guardian

In a hotel garden next to Arles’s Roman amphitheatre, I gratify three members of the counter-investigation Facebook group: Colette Barbe, Cecile Pellegrini and Brigitte Jajcaj. I mention that it seems odd that Jeanne did not placed her own daughter’s figure on the family tomb; was it Yvonne who decided 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 women say. The mausoleum wasn’t renewed until the 1960 s, shortly after Calment’s son-in-law and grandson died( the latter in a vehicle crash ); by then, Yvonne had fucking dead for 30 years, and Jeanne only had the most recent fatalities engraved.

They are an incongruous trio of sleuths: Pellegrini, the group administrator, is a quick, sarcastic talker whose half-Vietnamese grandfather opened the city’s first Asian restaurant; Jajcaj has swept-back grey hair, a climb shoulder tattoo and a black-tasselled padlock on a series around her cervix; Barbe is a strong-minded bourgeoisie, vibrantly attired and covered 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 supported herself perfectly upright at 102, which was beautiful .”

Soon after Zak’s paper was published, the group began to scour local repositories for evidence that eroded his theory. Distant members of the Calment and Billot lineages opened up their photo books and personal papers. In the minds of the open debate, Zak was also accepted on to the forum, where he to be maintained a leading commentary on the brand-new detects. He was collegiate on the surface, acknowledging that he and the counter-investigation had a shared goal: the truth. But over era they felt his attitude- requiring beings 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 route of life and history better than us ,” says Barbe.

But digging into the past began to pay dividends. One brand-new photo donated by a family member demo Yvonne posing on a balcony with a parasol against a mountain backdrop. Clever sleuthing with postcards and Google Maps discovered it to be part of the Belvedere sanatorium in Leysin, Switzerland- consistent with Yvonne’s diagnosis of pleurisy, often a symptom of tuberculosis. Another document seemed to confirm the gravity of her malady: her husband, Joseph, an army 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 switch did take place, maintaining this myth in plain sight would have necessary an exceptional and queasy stage of treachery. Yvonne would have had to share a house with Jeanne’s widower, Fernand, her own parent, 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 people of Arles or Jeanne Calment, the group argued, he would realise how implausible this was. A conspiracy would have been difficult to maintain in a close-knit person of 20, 000, and unlikely imparted Mme Calment’s reputation as a “dragon”, says Pellegrini.” If beings had known about the impostor, 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 criticizing Zak’s theme of a financial motive. The Russian had claimed Yvonne was trying to escape a 35% estate tax, but the group’s study led them to believe it would have been more like 6-7%- a rate the family could have managed, with Fernand Calment’s considerable assets.

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

***

There is some debate about what happens to frequencies of fatality in extreme old age. Some researchers believe they continue to rise with the Gompertz curve, until the risk of death in a afforded year 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” fatality deceleration “: the plateauing of the mortality rate after 105. But there are doubts about this plateau, extremely, due to the frequent misreporting of supercentenarians( predominantly due to clerical error, rather than fraud ). With such a small dataset even a few cases faults can skew our understanding of human restraints( 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 fulfill him at his house in the village of Pignan, only west of Montpellier. Long legs stretched out in aquamarine committee abruptlies under his kitchen table, the researcher still has matinee-idol looks at 68. His work with Calment, carried out 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 its core mandate ,” he justifies.” 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 questionable .” He places 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 baffling. Yvonneis not rolled 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 hamlet of Paradou. He argues that she would masquerade as her mom, 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 assumption, categorically rejecting 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, manage a series of virtually 40 interviews with Calment at the Maison du Lac, asking for details of her life that merely she only knew. She made some slips, unsurprisingly for her age, often mingling up her parent and spouse.( Zak climbed on such missteps in excerpts of the transcripts later published in a book .) But many other details, such as the names of damsels and teaches, predominantly tallied with the information recorded in censuses and institution registers.

Robine is softly spoken, but it is hard to get a word in edgeways as he constructs his argument. I mention the idea that a DNA test on Calment’s blood could agree the debate. Jeanne’s husband Fernand was her remote cousin, so Yvonne had more ancestors common to both sides of her family than her mom- 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- merely hand it over to the Russians? To an international committee? To do what? These beings are caught up in supernatural believe- that the secret of longevity is in her genes .”

***

By August 2019, l’affaire Calment had settled into a impasse. 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 academic dignity behind his poker-face. Boyish in a blue sport shirt with disheveled hair, a slight smile occasionally breaks his equanimity.” Some people 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 am of the view that Jeanne Calment been killed in 1934, and that it was her daughter, Yvonne, who were killed 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, an animal with an improbably long lifespan of about 30 times. But he became caught up in the Calment case after stimulating contact on Facebook with Valery Novoselov, head of gerontology at the Moscow Society of Naturalists( MOIP ), who had longstanding surmises about her. Novoselov’s occasion had been based primarily on photographic analysis; he encouraged Zak, who spoke some French, to delve into other aspects, such as biographical and archival testify. Zak says he had no intention of publishing anything- until he contacted Jean-Marie Robine about the “problems” “hes had” located.” He ever had some condone about why he couldn’t reply, which I thought was strange ,” says Zak.” It was this that realise me carry on .”( Robine quarrels that he was evasive, saying he parallelled extensively with Zak in October 2018.)

Meanwhile, others were beginning to have doubts about Zak and Novoselov. Robert Young, who corroborates supercentenarians for Guinness World Records, conceives the attack on Jeanne Calment is a deliberate is trying to broadcast doubt about western scientific methods, is tantamount to” academic fraud “. He points to what he sees as Zak’s obstinate refusal to consider any scenario other than the permutation thought.” Segment of the technical testing procedure 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% particular .” Zak counters that he has fully analysed the opposite scenario- that Jeanne was Jeanne- in follow-up work this year, and accepts 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 declared influencing photographsof a young Yvonne Calment to emphasise similarities with her mother. Young alleges that such sleights of hand indicate that Zak, or beings are concerned with him, had an ulterior agenda.

Still, the permutation camp had arguments that couldn’t readily be dismissed. There was Calment’s odd seek, when Arles’s archives asked to provide them, that her personal newspapers be burned; and a 2006 detail in a French manufacture newspaper of a dinner at which a client insinuated that Calment’s insurers had known of the identity switching, but no act had been taken because she was already too famous. In mid-September, Inserm secreted an official rebuttal paper, co-authored by Robine, Allard and two others. While it didn’t address every aspect of the Russian case, it was a cool riposte, summarising many of the counter-investigation’s discoveries, and calling for the formal retraction of Zak’s paper.

Zak upped the ante. In an open character sent to prominent gerontologists, longevity researchers and correspondents- 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 disagreed,” while the potential benefits for science are huge .” Many parties recollected Zak had gone too far. One is part of the board of Rejuvenation Research, which had produced his revised paper, abdicated, saying it had” disgraced the field of gerontology in both Russia and internationally “.

Back in Arles, the counter-investigation group were also wondering about the singular behaviour of their “Russian friend”. He had been helpful at first, but in the depths of long note threads he could often be provoking, even goading. One member succeeded in getting Zak temporarily blocked from 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 days he’s obnoxious, and we’re forced to block him for a few epoches .” They speculate that more than one person might be using his account, and that Zak or the Zaks might be paid trolls.( Zak denies receiving any payment or substantiate from others .) But if Zak is a frontman, who might he be fronting for?

***

The theory that the Calment attack has been politically targeted is dismissed by Novoselov, the gerontologist who tasked Zak with probing her.” Look , no one in Russia cautions at all about this history ,” he says.” They couldn’t care less. There have been two articles in the media, and that’s it .” Novoselov says he is simply following his scientific inclinations, and compares 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 creation of 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 declared that his destination was to get Calment struck off the supercentenarians register. Wasn’t it gallant to do so before there was conclusive evidence?” What’s incontrovertible 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 speculates humen live their lives to 5,000, and misses 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 issues we grew “. His response, says Novoselov, was ” a presentation of invasion by Europe against everything civilised “; Young, he says, characterised his job as a scheme sent 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 article did have a second sponsor. The peer-reviewed version was published in Rejuvenation Research, the publication devoted to life-extension research revised by Aubrey de Grey, the controversial gerontologist and life-extension advocate who has claimed that, by 2100, the human lifespan could contact 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 stopover between Berlin and his home in California, De Grey is evasive about whether his strategy is to force the freeing of Calment’s blood sample. But he does think it should be made available for science:” In the interests of saving lives, used to identify more about ageing to eventually postpone ageing- then that’s actually quite important .” Would he want his own study organization, Sens, to do the DNA testing? Not necessarily, he says,” but I would certainly 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 study core 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 provisions. But Francois Schachter, the scientist who in the 1990 s founded its Chronos Project, the first genetic inspect of centenarians in the world, proven 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 speculation. In 2013, Google invested $1.5 bn in an entire discord, 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 damages. De Grey says it has been wasting the $13 m he put into the foundation in 2011 on research for anti-ageing therapies that will save” various million” lives. But it must start to pay its room; wouldn’t procuring the DNA of the oldest female 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 substance 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 field 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 space Zak and De Grey have apparently attempted to force the foundation’s hand. One repercussion 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 organisation announced 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; returned her children’s ages, she would have given birth three times in her 50 s. But the narrative underlines 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 affair 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 trying to tell me that Jeanne Calment does not anatomy 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 original fraudster.” I would really like the permutation tale is correct, like in the romances I cherish speaking ,” says Cecile Pellegrini.” I find that kind of thing super-exciting. If it’s actually true-blue, she was really something !” But perhaps the doyenne has something else to teach the would-be immortals of Silicon Valley: what additional fus would 5,000 years of live fetching, if we can’t get the record straight-shooting on a single everyday lifetime?

* Additional reporting by Marc Bennetts

If you would like a comment on this portion to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in magazine, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for book ).

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