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I met the oldest girl on the planet—who shared her reminiscences of Van Gogh in Arles

I don’t kiss girls whom I’m interviewing—it’s not skilled. However on one event I made an exception. Again in 1988 I met Jeanne Calment, then 113, who was then the oldest individual on Earth. That 12 months marked the centenary of Van Gogh’s arrival in Arles, and I used to be there to listen to her reminiscences.

On the finish of the interview I gave her a fast kiss on the cheek. It was a wierd sensation to have such shut contact with the oldest individual alive—and I assumed that she was not lengthy for this world, so it was a remaining goodbye. I used to be not fairly proper, for she lived on for practically ten extra years.

An 1895 {photograph} of Madame Jeanne Calment, aged 20
Wikimedia Commons

Born in Arles in 1875, Jeanne was 13 when Van Gogh arrived on the town. She informed me about encountering the artist in her household’s material store, the place he would purchase canvas for his work.

Madame Calment ultimately died on 4 August 1997, aged 122. By then she had change into not simply the oldest individual alive, however the oldest who had ever lived. Her age was accepted by the French paperwork, her medical doctors and Guinness World Information —and ultimately it might be on her dying certificates. In the present day she stays the one individual verified to have lived previous 119.

By the point I interviewed Madame Calment in 1988 her tales had been nicely honed. Vincent, she informed me, was an unsightly man, “extra all for consuming than portray”. The native kids teased him, though they had been frightened by his unkempt look. “Many of the ladies had been afraid of him, however the prostitutes favored him as a result of he paid them nicely,” she defined. Vincent ultimately went mad and “sliced off his ear like a chunk of cheese”.

These feedback had been hardly enlightening, however I treasured them as a result of they represented a direct hyperlink between our time and that of Van Gogh. Though The Artwork Newspaper’s type is to not use honorifics (similar to Mrs), as a mark of respect for her age I’ve all the time insisted on calling her Madame Calment.

Theoretically the younger lady and the struggling artist may actually have met, residing as they did in the identical city for 15 months in 1888-89. It was additionally fairly believable that Van Gogh patronised the household store for canvas.

Jules Moullot, element of poster promoting the Calment material store in Arles (round 1910)

Nevertheless, it’s more durable to consider that Madame Calment would have had her personal direct reminiscences of the artist in 1988, since she was speaking a few informal encounter that befell 100 years earlier. It’s more likely that her “reminiscences” had been picked up barely later after Van Gogh’s rise to fame started—maybe from individuals in Arles who had as soon as identified the artist nicely.

However may Madame Calment herself have been a fraud? A brand new self-published examine by the Russian researcher Nikolay Zak and his UK colleague Philip Gibbs controversially claims that there was an audacious id swap. Their e-book, Jeanne Calment: The Secret of Longevity Unravelled , argues that the celebrated girl who died in 1997 was really Jeanne’s 99-year-old daughter, Yvonne, who’s formally recorded as having died of tuberculosis in 1934. The authors consider that it was Jeanne who died that 12 months and that Yvonne then assumed the id of her mom.

Zak and Gibbs do increase legitimate questions concerning the proof accepted by Guinness World Information, though they admit there may be “no single level of proof that gives the smoking gun”.

However it stays unclear why in 1934 Yvonne ought to have launched into such an advanced deception. The overwhelming proof is that the lady who lived to 122 was certainly Jeanne Calment. That is nonetheless accepted by Guinness World Information and the French authorities. 

If Madame Calment was the truth is Yvonne, not Jeanne, then she would have needed to efficiently carry off the bluff for 63 years. What’s extra, she would have needed to pretend her age till she herself was 99. That may be fairly an achievement: certainly only a few near-centenarians may preserve such an advanced deception underneath the highlight of worldwide consideration.

I actually am satisfied that Madame Calment was born in 1875. Even when she had no direct reminiscences of Van Gogh, as she claimed, then she continues to be prone to have heard tales about him just some years after he mutilated his ear and left Arles for the asylum. For me, Madame Calment stays an astonishing hyperlink with Vincent’s personal time—and I cherish reminiscences of our encounter.

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