I have always been fascinated by the mystery of longevity. That secret by which a person ages until he exceeds the decade of death – between eighty and ninety – and then continues to live; as if she would never die, as if God had forgotten her. Obviously, the great old men are almost all women (like those you will meet in the following pages: Rita Levi Montalcini, Franca Valeri, Franca Ciampi, Vittoria Leone, Marida Recchi, Maria Romana De Gasperi …). It was never quite clear why. Certainly not because they worked less, on the contrary. Perhaps because women are stronger, physically and in mind.
It was August 4, 1997, and I was in Paris as usual to replace the correspondent of the “Stampa” for the summer holidays, when the news of the disappearance of Jeanne Calment arrived: 122 years old; the oldest woman in the world, indeed in history. In those same days, Lady Diana spent the last summer of her life cruising the Mediterranean on the yacht of Dodi al Fayed, the Egyptian billionaire. At the end of the month, his mysterious death in the Alma tunnel, right in Paris, would become the story of the year. But in that early August, when there was no other news, the farewell to Jeanne Calment – “the dean of humanity”, as the French called her – aroused vast emotion. A mixture of pride and pity, of fear for the confirmation of the ineluctable condemnation of death and of tenderness for that infinite life.
The newspapers published elegant graphs to remember that Jeanne had seen the telephone invented, the car, the cinema. Born in 1875, she was already a wife at the time of the Dreyfus case, a mother when General de Gaulle was in elementary school, a grandmother before the 1929 crisis. Victor Hugo, of having met Van Gogh – “dirty and sickly” – of having seen Joséphine Baker dance. A solemn funeral was given to her. The President of the Republic, who was then Jacques Chirac, had heartbreaking words for the “grandmother of the country”. The news was relaunched all over the world, including Italy, which increased the emotion and pride of the French; but it aroused the perplexity of some Russian scientists.
Backward in other respects, medicine in Moscow has branches of excellence, including gerontology: the study of old age. A team led by a geneticist, Valery Novoselov, and a mathematician, Nicolai Zak, began an investigation. Starting from a simple and cruel premise: a human being cannot live to be 122 years old.
The second longest-lived woman in history, the American Sarah Knauss, stopped at 119 years old, three less than Jeanne Calment: a huge amount. The other record holders died in a very short time: the Japanese Nabi Tajima at 117 years and 260 days, the Canadian Marie-Louise Meilleur at 117 years and 230 days, the Jamaican Violet Brown at 117 years and 189 days, the Italian Emma They die at 117 years and 137 days … The true decans of humanity have reached the very threshold of the abyss, right up to the last breath; and then they died out, serenely surrendered to the law of nature. (Obviously, at 117 no man has ever arrived).
Having made this observation, the Russians spoilers and desecrators they began to investigate. Jeanne Calment had lost only two centimeters of stature: impossible. The television images show her as she gets up by herself from her chair: impossible, at that age (sometimes, after all, we 50-year-olds struggle to get up too). The skin on his face was wrinkled, but not as wrinkled as it should have been if the stated age had been genuine.
Other details did not add up. Jeanne’s archive, with her documents, It was destroyed. And the death certificate of his daughter Yvonne, officially killed by pleurisy in 1934, is not found. Hence the hypothesis: the real Jeanne Calment would actually die of pleurisy; and the daughter would take his place, so as not to pay the hefty inheritance taxes. Yvonne Calment would therefore have died at 99: a remarkable age; but certainly not a record.
This would explain why, when in 1975 the Arles city hall officials they suggested that she celebrate her hundredth birthday, she drew back, strangely restless; then, over time, accept the role of the dean of humanity, and tell those stories about Victor Hugo, Van Gogh, Joséphine Baker, which today we would not know whether to define prodigies or nonsense.
Obviously the French reacted indignantly: hands off the grandmother of the country. Even today, under the entry Jeanne Calment, Wikipedia speaks of the “oldest woman in the world”, without mentioning the investigation by the Russians and the doubts it raised around the world. Perhaps because there is not only French chauvinistic pride at stake, but humanity’s dream of living forever, or in any case without a pre-established limit. In short: let’s not dirty this beautiful story with the truth.
(And anyway, as I write these lines, the Japanese lady Kane Tanaka, born on January 2, 1903, turned 118 years old; and it looks great. In Piazza Armerina Maria Oliva, the oldest woman in Italy, has exceeded 112: survived the Spanish, she also buried Covid. While in Città di Castello Luisa Zappitelli, at the age of 109, went to vote in the referendum on the cut of parliamentarians, a lifetime after having voted in the referendum to abolish the monarchy: and she won both. The hope of longevity never dies).
The book by Aldo Cazzullo The Italians. The country saved by women (Solferino): from 26 April in bookstores for 18 euros or in newsstands for 16 euros plus the cost of the Corriere della Sera. The volume will be presented with an interview by Roberta Scorranese with the author on corriere.it, Tuesday 27 April at 5 pm, and Friday 30 April at 7 pm in a conversation with Dacia Maraini in an event organized by Feltrinelli live. Readers who have purchased a copy of the book will have the opportunity to participate in the online event and converse with the author.
April 24, 2021 (change April 24, 2021 | 20:58)
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