France’s Jeanne Calment, widely recognized as history’s oldest woman upon her death at age 122, may have actually been a 99-year-old imposter, according to an explosive new theory being pushed by Russian researchers.
According to a paper written by mathematician Nikolay Zak and supported by gerontologist Valery Novoselov, the real Jeanne Calment died in 1934 at the age of 59. The woman who achieved fame as history’s oldest person was actually her daughter Yvonne, who assumed her dead mother’s identity in order to dodge steep French inheritance taxes.
“The phenomenon of Jeanne Calment could … be used as an example of the vulnerability of seemingly well-established facts,” it reads.
The paper is not peer reviewed and relies exclusively on circumstantial evidence. One of the paper’s key evidentiary points, for instance, is a Facebook poll of 224 people reporting that Calment did not “look” like a supercentenarian. At another point, the paper tries to justify Calment’s alleged tax fraud by writing that she “hated socialists.”
Nevertheless, Zak provides evidence to show that Calment seemed to bear a closer resemblance to Yvonne than purported photos of herself as a young woman. It cites reports from witnesses, including a former mayor of Arles, saying that she looked and acted younger than her supposed age.
Zak also shows that Calment’s interviews with age verificators were replete with tiny inconsistencies, such as confusing her husband and father or saying that she was accompanied to school by a family maid who would actually have been 10 years her junior.
Perhaps most notably, Calment had most of her personal papers destroyed rather than turning them over to the local Arles archive. “Intentional, remote destruction of photos and family archives after moving to the nursing home suggests that Jeanne had something to hide,” writes the paper, although it also acknowledges that destroying personal records is not out of the ordinary for centenarians who have outlived friends and family.
The imposter theory has been dismissed out of hand by Jean-Marie Robine, the French gerontologist who helped validate Calment’s extreme age in the 1990s. “All of this is incredibly shaky and rests on nothing,” he told Le Parisien.
Robine said that he and a colleague made sure to ask Calment questions that only she would know the answer to, such as the name of her mathematics teacher. “Her daughter couldn’t have known that,” he said.
Nicolas Brouard, a research director at France’s national institute for demographic studies, was more charitable with the research. Speaking to Agence France-Presse, he called Zak’s paper “very good work” and said the question could only truly be resolved via an exhumation of Jeanne and Yvonne Calment.
“The idea of identity theft has already been thought of by age validators and I’ve regularly invited demographers to consider this hypothesis,” he said.
One potential hitch in the theory is that Calment was part of a prominent family in Arles, a relatively small city of 50,000 in France’s South. Maison Calment, a multi-storey commercial building owned by the family, stood in the city’s centre.
By the late 1980s Jeanne had become the city’s most famous resident, rising to international prominence in 1988 due to her description of having once met Vincent Van Gogh. Not once throughout all of Calment’s worldwide fame did a fellow Arlesian step forward with evidence that the real Jeanne Calment was actually buried under a headstone reading “Yvonne.”
“Do you have any idea how many people would have needed to lie?” Robine told Le Parisien. “One day Fernand Calment starts passing off his daughter as his wife and everyone keeps quiet about it? It’s preposterous.”
To date, only one public claim of Calment as an imposter appears to predate the Zak paper. An obscure 2007 French book, Insurance and Its Secrets, claimed that an insurer became aware of Calment’s identity theft but “the authorities did not make it public because the ‘elder of the French’ became a legend.”
The ruse would also have required the intentional falsification of Yvonne’s death certificate. However, skeptics have made much of the fact that Yvonne’s death was not confirmed by a doctor or coroner; the certificate mentions only Marie Nicolle, a woman “sans profession.”
One Arles native, journalist Fabrice Pozzoli-Montenay, wrote in a recent Tweet that if such a thing had ever been perpetrated the whole town “would have known it in days.”
Zak explains this by showing evidence that Calment was rarely if ever seen during the 1930s and spent much of her time outside the city. “World War II brought chaos with it, and after the war, it all settled as if Madame Calment was always Madame Jeanne Calment,” he writes.
In a recent interview, Novoselov also pointed to a few peculiar aspects of Calment’s life that would have been consistent with a woman adopting her mother’s identity. Yvonne’s husband Joseph never got remarried after her 1934 death, and in fact lived for years with Jeanne, the woman who was reportedly his mother-in-law.
“There were many mentions that he was getting along very well with Jeanne,” said Novoselov. “You would expect a husband to treat his own wife well, wouldn’t you?”
Calment not only holds the record for longest-living human, but has eclipsed all competitors. She remains not only history’s only 122-year-old, but also its only 121-year-old and 120-year-old. The next longest-living person, American Sarah Knauss, died at age 119, more than three years before Calment’s final record of 122 years, 164 days.
The age is such an anomaly that longevity researchers have raised serious doubts that humanity could ever again see a member of the human species reach their 13th decade.
Calment would not be the first supercentenarian whose true age has been called into question due to falsified identity.
Quebec’s Pierre Joubert was famously thought to have been history’s oldest man at 113 years old when he died in 1814, even having his age vouched for by official Canadian statisticians. However, a later investigation annulled the claim when it found that Joubert had simply been mistaken for his same-named father.