World's oldest citizen doesn't envy complicated lives of youths today

May 06, 1992

ARLES, France -- The world's oldest citizen, the doyenne of humanity, can remember meeting the impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh when she was a teen-ager more than 100 years ago.

Jeanne Calment is now 117.

She has been widowed for longer than most people are married -- more than 30 years -- but still enjoys the good things in life like chocolate and the odd glass of port. She even allows herself an occasional cigarette after lunch.

A source of pride in her hometown of Arles in the south of France, she is modest, even a little skeptical, about her title of doyenne, as figured by the Guinness Book of Records.

"The oldest in Europe, perhaps," she suggested in an interview.

According to Guinness, only one person in 2 billion lives to be more than 115.

Ms. Calment puts her exceptional longevity down to a healthy lifestyle and happy-go-lucky character.

Though now too frail to walk, she enjoys being wheeled out by the lake near the nursing home where she has lived for five years.

Before that, Ms. Calment lived in her own apartment above a draper'sshop in this ancient Provencal town where she was born Feb. 21, 1875.

The shop belonged to her husband. Ms. Calment said Van Gogh, who spent most of the last three years of his life in Arles, used to buy his canvas there.

"He was a wild young man," she recalled. "Not the sort my parents wanted me to mix with."

She married at the age of 2O in 1895, just six years after the completion of the Eiffel Tower. Her husband died when he was in his 8Os, and Ms. Calment has since lost her only daughter and grandson.

She does not really envy young people of today. "They have greater freedom, but it makes life more complicated," she said. "And with so much unemployment, they have more to worry about than we did."

Diminishing sight prevents her from watching television, and jTC increasing deafness means she can no longer listen to her personal stereo.

Her friends keep her up to date on news. Always a keen letter-writer,Ms. Calment now dictates them to a "young" friend in her 8Os. Every birthday brings a pile of mail, as well as dozens of journalists.

She enjoys being the center of attention, but doesn't let it go to her head.

"I've been very lucky," she said. "I've never been ill, and everyone is kind to me."

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