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Jeanne Calment; World's Oldest Person Was 122

August 05, 1997|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

PARIS — Jeanne Calment, who took up fencing lessons at 85 and credited an occasional glass of port wine and a diet rich in olive oil for making her the world's oldest person, died Monday at 122.

Though blind, nearly deaf and in a wheelchair, Calment remained spirited and mentally sharp until the end. Her clear mind was evident to those who attended her 121st birthday in February 1996, when she released her CD, "Time's Mistress," which featured her reminiscing to a score of rap and other tunes.

She hoped to use profits from the four-track compact disc to provide a minibus and other equipment for the nursing home in Arles where she had lived for the past 12 years and where she died.

"She was the living memory of our city," said Michel Vauzelle, the deputy mayor of Arles. "Her birthdays were a sort of family holiday, where all the people of Arles gathered around their big sister."

For Calment, birthdays were a chance to indulge. She said in February that she had impatiently awaited her birthday so she could "eat some chocolate and drink a little sweet wine." Calment's doctor persuaded her to give up sweets two years ago.

Calment abandoned cigarettes in 1995, but her doctor said her abstinence was because of pride rather than health--she was too blind to light up herself and hated asking someone else to do it for her.

In later years, Calment lived mostly off the income from her apartment, which she sold cheaply more than 30 years ago to a lawyer.

He had agreed to make monthly payments on it in exchange for taking possession of the apartment upon her death, but never got to do so. He died more than a year ago at age 77; his family was required to keep making the payments.

Calment had no direct descendants, having survived her husband, her daughter and her grandson.

Born Feb. 21, 1875, Calment became Arles' greatest attraction since artist Vincent Van Gogh, who spent a year there in 1888. She met him that year when he came to her uncle's shop to buy paints, and later remembered him as "dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable."

The Guinness Book of World Records had listed Calment as the oldest living person whose birth date could be authenticated by reliable records. She attained the record at the age of 120 years and 238 days, surpassing Shigechiyo Izumi of Japan, who died in 1986 after living 120 years and 237 days.

A Brazilian woman, Mario do Carmo Geronimo, says she was born March 8, 1871. Her supporters say confusion over her birth document, a baptismal paper issued by Roman Catholic missionaries instead of a birth certificate, keeps her from being listed in the international edition of the Guinness records.

Guinness Publishing Ltd. was not immediately able to identify the new holder of the age record. Spokesman Clive Carpenter said the company had an unconfirmed candidate, a woman living in California who said she is 118. But Guinness would not recognize the claim or identify her until it had seen her birth certificate.

At 121, Calment gave a hint as to how she stayed sharp.

"I dream, I think, I go over my life," she said. "I never get bored."

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