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

If time builds buffoons of us all, you couldn’t blamed Andre-Francois Raffray for taking it more personally than most. In 1965, Raffray, a advocate 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 clients” en viager “: a way of property sale by which the buyer makes a monthly payment until the seller’s death, when the dimension becomes theirs. His client, Jeanne Calment, was 90 and sprightly for her age; she liked to surprise parties by leaping from her chair at the hairdresser. But still, it couldn’t be long: Raffray exactly 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 chambers 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 poking her further into the realm of the implausible, Calment harboured 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 local conspicuous would regularly visit for an audience.” I waited 110 times to be far-famed. I mean to attain the best possible use of it ,” she was reported to have said. One party section was narrating how, as a teenager, “shes had” converged Vincent van Gogh; he was ugly and dishevelled, she said, and neighbourhoods announced him” the dingo “.

The pensioner seemed anointed 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 peculiar zinger:” I wait for death … and correspondents ,” 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, largely blind and deaf, she lastly succumbed on 4 August 1997. At 122, hers was the oldest corroborated human lifespan in history.

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

Some, though, believe it’s not just time that constructs suckers of us all. Last-place year, a Russian mathematician called 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 outstripped previous record-holders( the very near supported claim at the time was 117 ), Zak had dug into her biography and unveiled a emcee of incongruities. First published on Researchgate, a scientific social networking place, then picked up by bloggers and the Associated Press news agency, Zak’s paper claimed that Jeanne Calment are really died in 1934; according to official records, this was when Yvonne had lost her life, aged 36, to pleurisy. At this stage, Zak alleged, her daughter assume responsibility for her identity- they ogled same- and she kept up the pretence for more than 60 years.

When the paper departed 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 newspaper in 10 years.

Zak doubled down in response. He produced an expanded newspaper in the US-based journal Rejuvenation Research, in January this year. It gathered a dossier of 17 portions of biographical ground is in favour of ” substitution ” hypothesi, including inexplicable physical differences between the young and age-old Jeanne( a change in gaze colour from “dark” to dark-green) and variances in the verbal testimonies she caused 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 the committee has been no public fete of Jeanne’s 100 th birthday, a key reference point in old-age validations.

As Zak declared, there was no smoking gun; but together these segments of circumstantial proof did exhale a bazaar amount of smoke. Crucially, he suggested a conceivable motivating: that Yvonne had taken her mother’s plaza so as to avoid punishing inheritance taxes, which during the interwar period extended as high-pitched as 35%.

The debate spread through the French press and international gerontological cliques, becoming increasingly heated. Numerous dismissed Zak’s swap ideology as Russian-sponsored” forge bulletin”, as the newspaper Le Parisien threw it. Certainly, it seemed to be an attack on western science. As well as Calment, Zak expressed doubts about the validation of Sarah Knauss, a Pennsylvanian policy office administrator 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 subject?

For the people of Arles, it was a matter of local pride. They swiftly rallied behind Calment and structured a Facebook group, the Counter-Investigation into the Jeanne Calment Investigation, to destroy Zak’s asserts. 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 killed 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 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 specified 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 league- 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 mortality, one which estimated that the risk of demise 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 roughly 50%. Knowing this, Calment’s record appears 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 fleck, apart from the small book-shaped plinth engraved ” La doyenne de l’humanite “ on her mausoleum. When I visit in the last days of August, summertime 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 kinfolk mausoleum stands a utensil of forge chrysanthemums and a yellowing succulent. Curiously, Joseph Billot, Jeanne’s son-in-law and Yvonne’s husband, and her grandson Frederic Billot are marked, but her daughter is not. Yet the cemetery defender, in a hut a few metres away, assures me that Yvonne is buried with her mother.

Colette
Tintype portraits of Calment’s adherents, who all quarrel the forgery thought, from left. Colette Barbe, Brigitte Jajcaj and Cecile Pellegrin. Photograph: Jonathan Pierredon/ The Guardian

In a inn garden-variety next to Arles’s Roman amphitheatre, I gratify three representatives from the counter-investigation Facebook group: Colette Barbe, Cecile Pellegrini and Brigitte Jajcaj. I mention that it seems strange that Jeanne did not put her own daughter’s epithet on the family tomb; was it Yvonne who decided to stop 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 mausoleum wasn’t refurbished until the 1960 s, shortly after Calment’s son-in-law and grandson died( the latter in a vehicle disintegrate ); by then, Yvonne had been dead for 30 years, and Jeanne only had the latest demises engraved.

They are an incongruous trio of sleuths: Pellegrini, the group administrator, is a quick, sardonic orator whose half-Vietnamese grandfather opened the city’s firstly Asian restaurant; Jajcaj has swept-back grey hair, a develop shoulder tattoo and a black-tasselled padlock on a series around her neck; 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 neighbourhood archives for proof that subverted his theory. Distant members of the Calment and Billot lineages “ve opened” their photo albums and personal articles. In the spirit of open debate, Zak was also accepted on to the forum, where he kept up a guiding commentary on the new findings. He was collegiate on the surface, recognizing that he and the counter-investigation had a shared purpose: the truth. But over duration they felt his attitude- challenging beings chase after evidence on his behalf, unfailingly utilizing it to back up his working theory- begin to rankle.” Sometimes I gives 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 brand-new picture donated by a family member showed Yvonne posing on a balcony with a parasol against a mountain backdrop. Clever sleuthing with mailing-cards and Google Maps disclosed 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 problem: her husband, Joseph, an infantry 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 required an extraordinary and queasy stage of treachery. Yvonne would have had to share a house with Jeanne’s widower, Fernand, her own papa, 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 improbable this was. A plot would have been difficult to maintain in a close-knit person of 20, 000, and unlikely generated 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 assaulting Zak’s meaning of a fiscal incentive. The Russian had claimed Yvonne was trying to escape a 35% estate tax, but the group’s investigate led them to believe it would have been more like 6-7%- a frequency the family could have managed, with Fernand Calment’s substantial assets.

But Zak refused to budge. Exclusively a DNA test, either from Trinquetaille cemetery or a test of Calment’s blood, rumoured to be stored in a Paris research institute, would decide the matter, he indicated. But the status of women from the counter-investigation group believe he has gone too far down the rabbit fault to consider any thought 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 what happens to charges of fatality in extreme old age. Some researchers believe they continue to rise with the Gompertz curve, until the risk of fatality in a afforded time is absolute- with an effective ceiling to human rights 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, very, due to the frequent misreporting of supercentenarians( chiefly due to clerical error, rather than fraud ). With such a small dataset even a few cases mistakes can skew our understanding of human limits( 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 fill him at his home in the hamlet of Pignan, exactly west of Montpellier. Long legs stretched out in aquamarine card suddenlies 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 state organisation Inserm( L’Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale ),” never had validating her age as its core mandate ,” he clarifies.” It was to validate the quality of the administrative documents that attested to her age. And from what we had at our disposal, “theres nothing” dubious .” 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 puzzling. 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 kilometers away in the hamlet of Paradou. He is suggested 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 theory, flatly 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, however, conduct a series of nearly 40 interrogations with Calment at the Maison du Lac, asking for details of her life that simply she would know. She made some slips, unsurprisingly for her age, often desegregating up her leader and spouse.( Zak climbed on such mistakes in excerpts of the records later published in a journal .) But many other details, such as the names of girls and teachers, mainly tallied with the information recorded under censuses and institution 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 settle 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 these recommendations of DNA testing.” What are we going to do- exactly side it over to the Russians? To an international commission? To do what? These beings are caught up in supernatural deliberation- 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 am right ,” he says. There is a flash of academic dignity behind his poker-face. Boyish in a off-color polo shirt with rumpled “hairs-breadth”, a slight smile sometimes bursts his composure.” Some beings 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, an animal with an improbably long lifespan of about 30 years. 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 Ecologist( MOIP ), who had longstanding impressions about her. Novoselov’s suit had been based primarily on photographic analysis; he supported Zak, who spoke some French, to delve into other aspects, such as biographical and archival evidence. Zak says he had no intention of publishing anything- until he contacted Jean-Marie Robine about the “problems” he had felt.” He ever had some apologize about why he couldn’t reply, which I thought was strange ,” says Zak.” It was this that reached me carry on .”( Robine disputes that he was evasive, “says hes” corresponded extensively with Zak in October 2018.)

Meanwhile, others were beginning to have doubts about Zak and Novoselov. Robert Young, who substantiates supercentenarians for Guinness World Records, imagines the attack on Jeanne Calment is a deliberate attempt to sow doubts concerning western technical methods, amounting to” academic fraud “. He points to what he sees as Zak’s obstinate refusal to consider any scenario other than the button belief.” Proportion of the technical testing procedure is that we need to be open to multiple possibilities, including that one’s own 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 rebuffs 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 operating photographsof a young Yvonne Calment to emphasise similarities with her baby. Young alleges that such sleights of hand indicate that Zak, or parties are concerned with him, had an ulterior agenda.

Still, the switching camp had arguments that couldn’t easily be dismissed. There was Calment’s odd request, when Arles’s repositories asked for them, that her personal newspapers be burned; and a 2006 account in a French manufacture newspaper of a dinner at which a guest insinuated that Calment’s insurers had known of the identity button, but no activity had been taken because she was already too famous. In mid-September, Inserm released 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 announcing for the formal retraction of Zak’s paper.

Zak upped the ante. In an open letter sent to prominent gerontologists, longevity canadian researchers and reporters- 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 bickered,” while the potential benefits for science are huge .” Many people considered Zak had gone too far. One is part of the board of Rejuvenation Research, which had written his revised newspaper, resigned, 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 peculiar the actions of their “Russian friend”. He had been helpful at first, but in the profundities of long commentary weaves he could often be provoking, 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 hours he’s hateful, and we’re forced to block him for a few daylights .” They speculate that more than one person might be using his account, and that Zak or the Zaks might be paid trolls.( Zak disavows receiving any payment or funding from others .) But if Zak is a frontman, which are able to he be fronting for?

***

The theory that the Calment attack has been politically aimed is dismissed by Novoselov, the gerontologist who duty Zak with probing her.” Look , nobody in Russia cares at all about this story ,” he says.” They couldn’t care less. There ought to have two essays in the media, and that’s it .” Novoselov says he is simply following his scientific impulses, 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 intellects 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 blow, Novoselov is used to courting controversy. In January, he was reported 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 record, then maybe we would be convinced .”

Aubrey
Aubrey De Grey, in California. He conceives humans could live 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 created “. His response, says Novoselov, was ” a expose of invasion by Europe against everything civilised “; Young, he says, characterised his cultivate as a plot aimed from on high by” someone important “. But its not surprising that Novoselov’s abrasive tactics have raised eyebrows; he has peril 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 form was published in Rejuvenation Research, the periodical 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 contact 5,000 years. 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 about whether his programme is to force the release of Calment’s blood test. But he does think it should be made available for science:” In the interests of saving lives, finding out more about ageing to eventually shelve ageing- then that’s actually quite important .” Would he miss his own research organization, Sens, to do the DNA testing? Not inevitably, 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 research 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 investigation 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 dissenters like De Grey was veto science. 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 vested $1.5 bn in an entire department, Calico, devoted to” solving demise “. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has given millions of dollars to Sens.

But Sens, according to its annual reports, has been running at heavy losses. De Grey says it has been expending the $13 m he put into the foundation in 2011 on research for anti-ageing rehabilitations that will save” several million” lives. But it must start to pay its course; wouldn’t assuring 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 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 orbit of interest is how Calment bypassed cancer, congestive heart failure, 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 approve of the channel Zak and De Grey have apparently attempted to force the foundation’s hand. One upshot 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 announced that a woman who was purportedly 123 had died in the Astrakhan region of southern Russia. This is almost certainly impossible- even Novoselov thinks so; yielded her children’s ages, she would have given birth three times in her 50 s. But the fib 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 speculate 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 mean to tell me that Jeanne Calment does not person high on his priorities, he plans to devote another matter 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 master fraudster.” I would really like the switch storey to be true, like in the fictions I love speaking ,” says Cecile Pellegrini.” I find that kind of thing super-exciting. If it’s actually true-life, she was really something !” But perhaps the doyenne has something else to school the would-be immortals of Silicon Valley: what additional fus would 5,000 years of existence delivering, if we can’t get the record straight-out on a single ordinary life-time?

* Additional reporting by Marc Bennetts

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