The Nine Most Famous Documented Centenarians

The Queen Mum

Here we pay tribute to those lucky humans who lived to see their one-hundredth birthday. Now, I realize that when you start going back into the murk of ancient history, you hear tales of all kinds of really, really old people. Methuselah comes to mind. He lived to be 969, if you believe the Bible, and I don't. So for this list we're looking at the most famous documented centenarians - those who, on official record, made it to the age of 100 if not older. And I'm not including those people who became famous simply because they were old, such as Jeanne Calment of France, who lived to see her record-setting 122nd birthday.

  1. Bob Hope. Beloved (by some) Hollywood actor/comedian lived to be 100. But did you know that he was also a ferociously greedy land speculator who made hundreds of millions of dollars off of land he owned in the once-undeveloped San Fernando Valley? Hope is even credited with one regrettable invention, the mini mall, thanks to a particularly lucrative land deal where he snapped up all the Standard Oil gas stations around the Valley, closed them down, then developed the properties into this new style of consumerist architecture, blighting the American landscape forever. Thanks Bob!
  2. George Burns. Hope's contemporary, the noted comedian Burns, whose first career was straight man to his wife Gracie Allen and whose second career was as standup comic and film actor after her death, also lived to be 100, with no scummy land-grabbing legacy to my knowledge.
  3. Leni Riefenstahl. Back into the controversy pit we go with the German filmmaker who died at 101. Riefenstahl lived quite a life: directing and starring in her own films during the '20s and '30s (at a time when women simply didn't direct movies, least of all in Germany), then making two beautiful but obviously creepy Nazi propaganda films under Hitler, after which she spent the rest of her life denying any involvement with the Nazis. Right. Still, she was an accomplished photographer who was a licensed scuba diver late into her nineties, which is impressive no matter what her politics actually were.
  4. Irving Berlin. How satisfying to squeeze ol' Leni in between two Jews! And how ironic that this Jew, Irving Berlin, who also lived to be 101, is best known for writing gentile-oriented songs like "White Christmas" and "God Bless America" (the latter rejected as our national anthem either because Berlin was Jewish or because he married a Catholic. "Let us all be grateful for a land so fair", indeed!), among hundreds of others.
  5. The Queen Mother. Originally known as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Queen Mum remained the most popular member of England's royal family up until her death at 101 years of age. If her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, follows suit, poor Prince Charles may never become king of England - his mother might outlive him.
  6. Strom Thurmond. Readers outside the United States may not recognize the name, but Thurmond, an ultra-conservative American politician who served a record 48 years in the US Senate, lived to be 100. Oh, he also once ran for president in 1948 on a pro-segregation, anti-Civil Rights ticket. He holds another Senate record for the longest filibuster in its history - against, of course, the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And by the way, before all this he secretly fathered an illegitimate child... with his family's black maid.
  7. Grandma Moses. Celebrated "outsider artist" Anna Mary "Grandma" Moses started painting at the ripe old age of 77. She died at 101, which meant she lived to see many years of success in the art world, probably much to her own surprise.
  8. SeƱor Wences. A mainstay on the Ed Sullivan Show and a frequent target of impersonators, Spanish ventriloquist Wences was popular for his "S'all right? S'all right" routine, involving a puppet he painted onto his own hand and another puppet that was basically a head in a box. Wences outlived all the other people on this list, making it all the way up to 103. S'all right.
  9. Hal Roach. I end this list with legendary film producer Roach, who made tons of comedies in the 1920s and '30s, kick-starting the careers of Laurel & Hardy (his studio was the first to pair the two comics up), Harold Lloyd, the "Our Gang" kids, Harry Langdon, Thelma Todd, and many other early movie stars. His studio was also the first to go into an all-color production schedule and later became one of the first television studios. He died at 100.