Jeanne Louise Calment, considered the oldest person in the world, died near Arles, France, this morning at the age of 122.
Officials at the nursing home where she moved when she was 110 gave no specific cause of death. Calment, who had been confined to a wheelchair after a fall nine years ago, was nearly blind and very hard of hearing. She gave up a two-cigarette-a-day habit a few years ago -- not for health reasons, a doctor said, but because she could no longer light up without asking for help.
In her last decade, Calment became a French institution, regularly described in the news media as the "doyenne of humanity." Every year on her birthday, Feb. 21, she regaled reporters with quips about her secret of longevity -- the list changed every year and included laughter, activity and "a stomach like an ostrich's." Her most memorable explanation was that "God must have forgotten me."
Despite her faltering physical condition, Calment continued to show impressive mental acuity and high spirits. "I've only ever had one wrinkle, and I'm sitting on it," she said when she turned 110.
For her 121st birthday last year, a record company released "Mistress of Time," a four-track CD of her spoken reminiscences over a background of rap and other tunes. The retirement-home supervisor who brokered the recording contract was removed from her post after charges that Calment had not fully understood what was involved.
The Guinness Book of World Records pronounced Calment the world's oldest person after the previous record-holder, 120-year-old Shigechigo Izumi, died in Japan in 1986 -- by coincidence, on Calment's 111th birthday.
The world's new longevity champion, Guinness said today, is a Danish-born American, Christian Mortensen, of San Rafael, Calif., who will turn 115 the week after next. Other claimants to the throne of old age -- most notably a Brazilian woman, Maria do Carmo Geronimo, who is believed to have been born in 1871 -- lack the documentation to satisfy the record-keepers.
Today, the mayor of Arles, Michel Vauzelle, said the town is in mourning. "She was the living memory of our town. She brought us comfort and hope with her liveliness, humor and tenderness. In short, we had hoped she was immortal," he said in a statement quoted by news services.
Calment was born in Arles in 1875, before the invention of the light bulb and the phonograph, the airplane and the automobile. She was 14 when the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889.
According to a legend amplified by the French press, Calment as a teenager met Vincent Van Gogh when the artist spent a year in Provence and bought his canvases at a local art-supply shop owned by her future in-laws. Prompted by reporters, she described Van Gogh as "very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick. . . . We called him a madman."
She turned 40 during the first months of World War I and reached retirement age at the outbreak of World War II. Having married in 1896, she outlived her husband by 55 years, their only child by 63 years and their only grandchild by 37 years.
But she was even more celebrated in France for outliving a much younger citizen who bought her two-bedroom apartment in 1965 under a special arrangement by which older people sell their property at a price well below market value in exchange for the right to occupy it -- and collect payments from the buyer -- for as long as they live.
The frustrated buyer died two years ago, having paid about four times the value of the apartment. One year, Calment wrote him a note that said, "Forgive me for still being alive, but my parents didn't raise second-rate goods." CAPTION: On Feb. 21, Jeanne Calment celebrated her 122nd birthday in Arles, France, with a chocolate cake.