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JEANNE CALMENT (1875 – 1997) Oldest Living Person

In Uncategorized on April 14, 2021 at 2:37 PM

Leon Trotsky said, “Old age is the most unexpected of all things that happen to a [person].” In Arles, France, Jeanne Calment shocked the world by raising the bar on being a super centenarian, someone over 110 years old.  Like the Energizer bunny, she kept going, and going, and going, breaking the previous record of 116 years old. When she died at age 122 years, 164 days, her life had spanned four generations, and she had lived through 20 French presidencies. She was dubbed la doyenne de l’humanité (the oldest person in the world), and she holds the Guinness world record as the “Oldest person ever (female),” beating the record of the “Oldest person ever (male)” by six years.

When Calment was born in 1875, the life expectancy in France was 45 years old. There was a history of relative longevity in Calment’s family. Her parents, a boat builder and housewife, were both 37 years old when she, the youngest of four children, was born. One older brother survived. Even though the two other siblings died young, her father and brother were both in their 90s when they died.

Calment’s childhood followed societal norms. Girls went to school until age 16 and then got married. Being a strong-willed tomboy, she started bucking the system early on. Her Catholic girls’ school education included math, science, sewing, and she took private piano lessons. But that was not enough to captivate her. Calment’s love of the outdoors and being active necessitated that her father or the maid take her to school to make sure she arrived. For her, playing outside was the priority over studying.

While Calment was waiting to get married, she developed her artistic abilities by learning oil painting. Her favorite subject was flowers, especially the roses, sunflowers, tulips, and iris she saw outside. A five-paneled folding screen with Calment’s colorful floral decoration was displayed in the living room. Family parties included lots of music and dancing, which Calment participated in whole-heartedly. She dressed up and went to at least one big ball during her teenage years and danced the waltz and quadrille.

At age 21, Calment married her twice second cousin, Fernand Nicolas Calment, who was seven years older. On their fathers’ sides, their grandparents were brothers, and on their mothers’ sides, their grandmothers were sisters. Since she and her husband had known each other their whole lives and shared a last name, the transition into marriage was easy for her. 

LIVING HER BEST LIFE                             The Calments lived in an apartment over Fernand’s family’s dry goods store. They spent their first year of marriage traveling and enjoying themselves until they welcomed a baby girl, Yvonne, who was born at home with the assistance of a midwife. Calment wasn’t needed to work in the store, which suited her just fine. She eschewed the typical activities that filled the days of most women. Fernand did not impose expectations on his wife to live up to the traditional image. He allowed her much more leeway to express herself than her father had. Calment started smoking after she was married and maintained the habit of one cigarette after a meal until she stopped cold turkey at 117 years old. Even while raising a daughter, she pursued the sports she loved: walking, playing tennis, hiking, cycling, swimming, roller skating, and ice skating. She often wore culottes instead of dresses to facilitate being an athlete. She learned to hunt from her husband, and together they would take their spaniel Lucky out to shoot partridge, wild boar, and rabbits. Calment became a leader of their hunting society and was nicknamed “Madame Partridge” by the other hunters. She never hesitated to try something new, and she wasn’t afraid of anything. This became a point of contention with her husband. He criticized her for pushing her limits and not having enough fear, but he never went so far as to insist that she stop any of her activities.

Mr. and Mrs. Calment were also patrons of the arts. They attended formal dances and went to the opera in Marseilles. Calment dressed to the nines, wearing a most fashionable beaver or fox stole with the head and the tail. They gave Yvonne piano lessons, and mother and daughter frequently played duets together.

DEALING WITH GRIEF AND LOSS                    Yvonne married Colonel Joseph Billot, and they had a son, Frédéric. In 1934, tragedy struck the family when Yvonne was 36 years old. She died of complications related to tuberculosis, leaving eight-year-old Frédéric to be raised by his father. Calment stepped into the role of mother and became especially close to her grandson. Eight years later, tragedy struck again. Fernand died from eating some cherries that were laced with chemicals while visiting friends. At 67 Calment was a widow. With such devastating loss, Calment’s son-in-law and grandson remained close. When Frédéric became an otolaryngologist (a doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat medicine), he opened his office in Calment’s home. When Frédéric got married, Joseph Billot moved into Calment’s house. The companionship was good for both of them. For twenty years, life was good until tragedy stuck again in 1963. In January, Joseph succumbed to a long illness, leaving Calment with only one living relative. Then in August, while Calment was still grieving the loss of her son-in-law, Frédéric died in a car accident. Since Frédéric had no children, that was the end of the family line. Instead of passing the baton to a younger generation, Calment was the one responsible for the family legacy.

At 88 years old, Calment was still living alone in an apartment and following her daily routine. Even in her late 90s, she frequently walked or cycled to visit Frédéric’s grave. At 110 years old, her eyesight failing, Calment tried to heat the apartment by using a candle to unfreeze the boiler, which started a small fire. At that point, she consented to moving into a home, the Maison du Lac.

KEEPING ON KEEPING ON                      Instead of slowing down, Calment maintained her active lifestyle. She got up every morning at 6:45. A practicing Catholic, she started (and ended) each day with prayers, followed by stretching exercises. She even had exercises for her hands because “a distinguished woman must have beautiful hands.”1 For inspiration, she listened to classical music on her Walkman. She continued to enjoy her indulgences: vanilla ice cream, lots of chocolate, two cigarettes a day, wine in moderation, and a glass of port in the evening. Calment took pride in her looks although she didn’t wear make-up. She moisturized her skin with olive oil followed by a bit of powder, and wore Coty perfume. In an interview with Paris Match, she bragged that her breasts were still as firm as “two little apples.”2 She attended Mass regularly and Vespers on Friday. When it became too difficult for her to visit Frédéric’s grave on her own, she took a taxi.

As she aged, Calment retained her zest for life, even as her body started to fail her. She bounced back quickly after she fractured her leg in a fall at 110 years old, and was still quite mobile when she moved to Maison du Lac. However, she became increasingly deaf, and a case of conjunctivitis when she was younger developed into bilateral cataracts, leaving her almost blind. She refused to have surgery to fix the condition. She suffered from a weak heart, a chronic cough, and painful episodes of rheumatism. She was prone to falling, perhaps because of her failing eyesight, and when she was 115 years old, she suffered a broken hip and elbow. From then on Calment was confined to a wheelchair, spending much of her time looking out the window of her room.

There was a lot of curiosity about Calment’s longevity. Three men, working in conjunction with INSERM, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, set out to validate her age and understand her lifestyle through interviews and research. Dr. Victor Lèbre was the head physician at Maison du Lac, Dr. Michel Allard was a gerontologist, and Jean-Marie Robine was a researcher. When they started interviewing their subject, she was 115 years old and in good spirits. She made jokes and easily recollected details of her life. On her 118th birthday, her validators noted that Calment’s tone had changed. She had become more immobile and she admitted that life had become less interesting. She maintained her belief in God and focused her prayers on asking for help, guidance, and forgiveness. She didn’t believe in heaven, but she was not afraid of dying. On her 119th birthday, Calment acknowledged that she had had a wonderful life but there was no longer anything for her to look forward to. “I’m taking one day at a time,” she said. “I can’t think of the future, I don’t have one any more.” And, with her characteristic wit, she quipped, “I wait for death…and journalists.”1

THE CELEBRATION OF A LIFETIME                 As fate would have it, Calment would have to wait a few more years. For Calment’s 120th birthday, February 21, 1995, there was a huge celebration, and she rose to the occasion. She had become an international celebrity as the oldest living person, and journalists from TV stations all around the world broadcast the festivities. In preparation, Calment got a new dress, and she got her hair and nails done. The foyer of the Maison du Lac was set up to accommodate guests, and Calment was seated on a platform with a rope around it to keep people from crowding her. Dr. Victor Lèbre shouted questions and described the goings on into her ear. There were speeches, and local school groups, bands, and choirs entertained. A procession of local postal workers delivered the 16,000 birthday cards she received from more than 100 countries. And, of course, there was a huge cake with 120 candles on it. Late in the afternoon, the French health minister, who had flown in from Paris for the occasion, stopped by to pay homage and present her with a silver brooch. For all of the joie de vivre on display, it was a long and exhausting day for Calment.

Perhaps all of the attention gave Calment a second wind. When she was 121 years old she recorded an album called Mistress of Time. On it, a young child asks Calment questions and she answers over the peppy background of traditional Farandole dance music. “I waited 110 years to be famous,” Calment noted. “I mean to make the most of it.”3

THE INEVITABLE ENDING             Calment knew that death was imminent, and she wanted to control her legacy. She destroyed all of her personal papers and photos. Since she had no one to pass them on to, she didn’t want strangers to have access to and misrepresent her image.

The world lost many famous people in 1997, including Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. But Jeanne Calment was the only one who had been born in the previous century. On Monday morning August 4, Calment slipped from this life. For all of the attention she garnered during her life, only a few people attended the hasty burial two days later in the family plot at the Trinquetaille Cemetery in Arles.

DEBATING THE PROS AND CONS             Calment’s record as the world’s oldest person remained unchallenged until 2018 when her longevity was called into question. Nikolay Zak, a Russian mathematician, was on a mission to prove that there was a case of switched identities, and that it was Calment who died in 1934 and Yvonne who died in 1997. His belief in a great deception was based on the premise that Calment’s family claimed that Yvonne recovered from tuberculosis but had passed it to Calment. He proposed that Calment had left town and Yvonne used her mother’s signature to sign some documents. What was meant to be a temporary convenience got out of hand, and the subterfuge was perpetuated. Furthermore, Zak asserted that the Calment family insisted that it was Yvonne who had died in order to protect their personal interests and avoid paying exorbitant inheritance taxes. To support his theory, Zak relied on several assertions. He cited perceived inconsistencies in Calment’s features in photographs, omissions and errors in Calment’s recollection of her childhood, changes in Calment’s handwriting, and the improbable odds that anyone could live so long. He insisted that the reason that “Calment” burned all her personal papers was to destroy implicating evidence, and that the hasty burial was to avoid an autopsy. 

Zak published a poorly written, non-peer reviewed paper that garnered lots of attention and offered the enticement of a scandal. However, no one believed his theory, and in the end, his claims did not hold up against the due diligence of the three validators. They traced Calment’s ancestry back seven generations looking for genetic clues to her long life. They sourced the birth, baptism, marriage, and death certificates of all the members of Calment’s family, and census records. But perhaps the most supportive evidence that Jeanne Calment lived to be 122 years old in the city where she grew up is that her fellow citizens of Arles knew their friend and neighbor, and no one could convince them that the person they knew was not who she claimed to be.

QUESTION: Do you want to live to be 100 years old? Why? What do you think life will be life when you’re 100?

© 2021 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


1Allard, Michel, Lèbre, Victor, Robine, Jean-Marie, Jeanne Calment: from Van Gogh’s time to ours, 122 extraordinary years. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1998.

2Collins, Lauren, “Was Jeanne Calment The Oldest Person Who Ever Lived-Or A Fraud?” New, February 10, 2020.

“Oldest person ever (female)”

3Hoad, Phil, ” ‘People are caught up in magical thinking’: was the oldest woman in the world a fraud?” The Guardian, November 30, 2019.

Chen, Angela, “How We Know The Oldest Person Who Ever Lived Wasn’t Faking Her Age.” The Verge, January 9, 2019.

Nikolay, Zak, “Evidence that Jeanne Calment Died in 1934-Not 1997.” Pub, February 22, 2019.

Wang, Jane-Ling, UC   

Photo Credits:

Paris Match

RALPH NEVES (1916 – 1995) Jockey Who Died and Came Back to Life

In American History, Biography, California History, Horses, Movies, People, Uncategorized on November 29, 2019 at 11:07 AM

As the saying goes, when we get injured, we’re encouraged to “get right back on the horse.”  Ralph Neves really took that to heart. For him, that wasn’t just good advice; it was logical. He was a jockey, and there was a race to run with a big prize at stake. Never mind he had been declared dead just hours before.


Ralph Neves


Neves’ personality was full of grit and determination. When he was five,  his family moved from Massachusetts to California. Nothing is known about his mother. His father, who worked as a plasterer, allowed his son to do his own thing. Neves learned how to ride horses and dropped out of school to start earning money. He joined the rodeo and then did stunts for movies. The basic pay for stunt doubles was $10 a day, but Neves got $50 every time he fell off a horse. One day that added up to $200 because the director needed four takes to get the shot.

JUST HORSING AROUND           When Neves saw the potential for something that fit his temperament better, he made the transition from movies to horse racing. He won his first race when he was 18 years old. He signed a contract for $15 a month for three years, with $5 a month raises after the first year. Then Neves was picked up by Charles S. Howard, owner of the horse Seabiscuit, for $200 a month for two years. Howard wanted Neves to race in New York, but Neves jumped out of a bathroom window en route to get back to California.

Neves did things the way he wanted to, and that was reflected in his aggressive, reckless racing style. In 1935, a year after he started racing, The Seattle Times characterized him as a “…cocky, confident little youngster. When he mounts a horse, the possibility of failure never enters his mind. … He is a fearless rider and never hesitates to take a chance. Oblivious of danger to himself, he sometimes leans toward the rough side.”1  Neves was often fined for riding the horses too hard and whipping them too much. He was suspended for five to ten days at a time so often that once, to make their point, the track stewards suspended him for six months. Winning was everything, and he didn’t care what anyone else thought about him.

 DOWN AND OUT               On a spring day in 1936, Neves proved just how much winning meant to him. At the Bay Meadows track in San Mateo, California, Bing Crosby offered $500 and a gold watch to the jockey who won the most races in a multi-day meet. Neves was determined to win the prize. On May 8, he was in first place, only two wins ahead of another jockey. Riding Flanakins in an early race, Neves was leading the pack going into the far turn. For some reason, Flanakins faltered, throwing Neves into the wooden rail. He couldn’t get out of the way and was trampled by the horses coming up from behind.

In those days there was no ambulance waiting next to the track. Neves’ lifeless body was put in the back of a pick-up truck and taken to the track infirmary. He did not have a pulse, but the track doctor gave him a hopeful shot of adrenaline and had him transferred to the hospital and then to the morgue. Neves was wearing his ripped pants, one boot, and a toe tag to identify his corpse. The track announcer informed the crowd that jockey Ralph Neves was dead, and everyone stood for a moment of silence.

KEEPING HIS EYE ON THE PRIZE       Miraculously, Neves regained consciousness. When he realized what he was missing by being in the morgue, he walked out and took a taxi back to the racetrack. Neves was determined to get back on the horse, literally, and not let a near-fatal accident keep him from winning the meet. After everyone in the locker room recovered from what they thought was seeing a ghost, the officials refused to let Neves participate in any more races that day. The following day, however, Neves rode in five races. He didn’t win any, but he got enough second and third places to get the overall title for the meet and win the $500 and gold watch.

Neves continued his career as a jockey, interrupted for a short time by serving in the cavalry during World War II. And, he continued to sustain injuries. In the army he fell off a horse and broke his back at Fort Riley, Kansas. In 1959 he fell during a race and needed emergency brain surgery. Since winning was everything, Neves did whatever it took to win. In 1957 he had to go on a major diet to get down to 105 pounds to qualify for the Santa Anita Handicap, riding Corn Husker. He won by half a length.

While he’s best known for cheating death for the win, Neves was honored for his overall contributions to horse racing. In 1954, he received the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award (named after the jockey who famously rode Seabiscuit to victory against War Admiral in 1938) for bringing recognition to the sport. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1960 with the nickname “Portuguese Pepperpot.”

Neves hung up his silks in 1964 at 48 years old. During a career that spanned 30 years, Neves rode 25,334 horses, winning 3,772 races and earning over 13 million dollars. When he started winding down, he took up golf and needlepoint. For all of the injuries he experienced, he made it to 79 years old. He was under treatment for lung cancer when he died the second time, in his sleep.

QUESTION:  What is something you’ve done that seemed impossible? How did you do it?

© 2019 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


1 Cronin, Brian. “Did jockey Ralph Neves die in a race accident and come back to life?”, June 6, 2012.

Christine, Bill. “Former Rider, Now 70, Was So Tough That He Came Back From the Dead: Ralph Neves Was No Stiff as Jockey.” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1986.

Christine, Bill. “Long Ride Over for Jockey Neves : Horse racing: Declared dead after a race, he dies of cancer 59 years later.” Los Angeles Times  July 8, 1995. xpm-1995-07-08-sp-21661-story.html

Ralph Neves Bio, National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Ralph Neves, 78, Hall of Fame Jockey by Associated Press New York Times Archive July 10 1995  Archived April 24, 2019. of-fame-jockey.html

Whirty, Ryan. “Jockey Ralph Neves’ strange tale”  May 5, 2011.

Photo Credit: 

TenderFriend[CC BY-SA 4.0 (





SOPHIE BLANCHARD (1778 –1819) First Women to Fly Solo in a Hot Air Balloon

In adventure, Ballooning, Biography, Feminists, French History, People, Pilots, Uncategorized, women on September 15, 2010 at 9:34 AM

Sophie Blanchard

In the 1960s, The 5th Dimension sang, “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?”  When Sophie Blanchard’s husband said that to her, she said, “Yes,” and they were Up, Up and Away.  Sophie felt most comfortable in the air, but what goes up must come down.

Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant came to the world’s attention when she married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, an inventor and pioneer in French aviation, specifically ballooning.  Other than the fact that she was born to Protestant parents in western France, almost nothing is known about her young life.

Blanchard was about 16 years old when she married, 35 years younger than her husband, becoming his second wife.  She was described as a small, nervous woman who startled easily when she heard loud noises.  When she started flying with Jean-Pierre, she felt more at home in the quiet, peaceful sky than on terra firma.

TAKING TO THE SKIES                Blanchard made her first balloon ascent in 1804 with her husband as a stunt to raise money.  Even though Jean-Pierre was the world’s first professional balloonist and had made demonstration tours all over Europe, he wasn’t a very good businessman.  They hoped that having a woman in the basket would attract more fans.  Blanchard wasn’t the first woman to ride in a balloon.  Three other women had gone up in tethered balloons, and two women had previously gone up untethered, but seeing a woman aloft was still a novelty.

In 1809, Jean-Pierre was flying over The Hague when he had a heart attack and fell from his balloon.  He died from his injuries.  He had adopted the Latin phrase Sic itur ad astra (“Such is the path to the stars”) as his personal motto.  Blanchard decided to follow her husband’s path and became the first woman to fly solo in a balloon.

Blanchard still needed to pay off the debt left by her husband, so her balloon of choice was a hydrogen-filled gas balloon.  The benefits of using gas (instead of hot air) generally outweighed the risks.  She wouldn’t have to tend to a fire to keep the balloon airborne and, since she was a petite woman, she could use a small basket about the size of a chair and minimal gas to inflate the balloon.

WORTH THE RISK                          Even though ballooning had been popular for almost 30 years, the inherent dangers still made it a risky endeavor.  Blanchard passed out during several flights because of the high altitude, and she encountered freezing temperatures when she cruised at 12,000 feet.  In 1811, she had to stay airborne for over 14 hours to avoid a hail storm.  And sometimes landing was just as risky.  One time her balloon made a crash landing in a marsh, and she almost drowned.

Blanchard’s husband had experimented with parachutes, dropping dogs out of the basket to demonstrate floating down to earth safely.  One time when flying solo his balloon ruptured, and he was grateful for the parachute as his only way to escape.  None of Jean-Pierre’s mishaps deterred Blanchard from her own desire to be a pilot.  When she had the opportunity to fly solo, Blanchard also tested the flotation devices using dogs, but she never had the occasion to need one herself.  When she flew exhibitions at events, she spiced things up by attaching small baskets of fireworks to parachutes to light up the sky as they were falling.

Engraving of Sophie Blanchard in 1811

GETTING OFFICIAL RECOGNITION      Napoleon was a big fan of Madame Blanchard, and he appointed her as the “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals,” making her responsible for organizing balloon demonstrations at official events.  In 1810, she flew over the Champs de Mars (today near the Eiffel Tower) in honor of Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria.  To commemorate the birth of their son, Blanchard flew over Paris dropping announcements of the birth.  One year later, Blanchard made an ascent over the palace Château de Saint-Cloud during the official celebration of the boy’s baptism, and she set off fireworks from her balloon.  There’s speculation that she also devised plans with Napoleon to use hot air balloons for an aerial invasion of England, which were never carried out.

Blanchard’s popularity outlasted Napoleon’s rule.  When Louis XVIII returned to Paris in 1814 to regain the throne, she participated in the official procession, making her ascent from Pont Neuf.  King Louis was so impressed by her performance that he named her the “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration.”

Blanchard was also known throughout Europe, and large crowds came to watch her.  For the opening night of the opera in Frankfurt in 1810, she was allegedly responsible for a poor audience, as most of the city turned out to see her rather than attend the opera’s debut.

AN UNPLANNED DESCENT          In 1819, when Blanchard was 42 years old, she made an ascent over the Tivoli Gardens (now the site of the Saint-Lazare station), an area she was very familiar with.  She was warned repeatedly about the dangers of using pyrotechnics in her exhibitions.  She had never had an incident, but on the night of July 6, she was uncharacteristically nervous.  She went ahead with the demonstration, wearing a white dress and white hat topped with ostrich feathers and waving a white flag.  There was a strong wind and the balloon had difficulty rising.  It bounced off a tree in the attempt.  Blanchard threw ballast overboard, reducing the weight but also jeopardizing her stability.

When she had cleared the trees, Blanchard began her show using “Bengal Fire” fireworks to illuminate the balloon.  While she was still rising, the hydrogen caught on fire and the balloon started to fall.  The wind carried her off course, and Blanchard continued to eliminate ballast to become lighter and keep from plunging to the ground.

The balloon drifted above the rooftops of the Rue de Provence where the hydrogen gas finally burned up, causing the balloon to drop onto the roof of a house.  Blanchard was tossed out of her small basket, fell to the street below and was killed.  Speculation after the fact determined that the pyrotechnics were knocked out of position by the tree the balloon hit on the way up.

The crowd was stunned, and the rest of the event was cancelled.  The owners of Tivoli Gardens donated the admission fees to the support of Blanchard’s children.  When they found out that she didn’t have any children, the money was used to build a memorial to her over her grave, which was engraved with epitaph “victime de son art et de son intrépidité” (“victim of her art and intrepidity”).

QUESTION:  How do you feel about flying?  Would you like to be a pilot?  Why or why not?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved