People in France remember the summer of 1997 for the deaths of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and Jeanne Calment. The first became a household name by marrying into royalty; the second, by caring for the world’s sick and poor. Jeanne Calment, however, was an accidental icon, her celebrity the result of a form of passivity. For a hundred and twenty-two years, five months, and fourteen days, Calment managed not to die.
She was born at home on the Rue du Roure, in Arles, one of only four addresses she ever held. That February morning, in 1875, lavender smoke commingled with the cold in the tight streets of La Roquette, a traditional neighborhood of fishermen and the maritime trades. Plastic, tea bags, public trash cans, and the zipper had yet to come into the world. The life expectancy for a French woman was forty-five. Approximately one billion five hundred million people walked the planet, and Calment would outlive them all.
This is a long but fascinating story about a woman some of you may have heard of and whose life and death and age are still in dispute.