So what is it like to be the oldest man on earth?
Alexander Imich, 111 1/4 years old, sits in a chair in his Upper West Side apartment in New York and makes a face. Stick-thin with vein-roped hands, bristly whiskers and an enviable shock of hair, he forms a gaunt smile, eyes dancing. “Not like it’s the Nobel Prize,” he wheezes, pausing for a startled moment as his hearing aid pops out.
Yes, Imich, a scholar of the occult who was born in Poland on February 4, 1903, is now the world’s oldest validated male supercentenarian (those over 110), according to the Gerontology Research Group of Torrance, California. (Sixty-six women officially outdate him; the eldest, Misao Okawa of Japan, is 116.)
“I didn’t have time yet to think about it,” Imich says, as friends come by with a chocolate cake for a belated birthday celebration, delayed by a hospitalisation for a fall at home on the day he turned 111. “I never thought I’d be that old.”
Imich was 10 months when the Wright brothers invented manned flight. Imich remembers the first automobile in his hometown, fighting the Bolsheviks in the Polish-Soviet War, escaping the Holocaust and surviving a Soviet gulag. He then immigrated to the United States, finding time to master the computer and publish a book on the paranormal at 92.
He grew up in a well-to-do family of secular Jews in Czestochowa in southern Poland. His father installed an airstrip for early aviators. “At the time, flying was a demonstration,” he recalls, dubbing the aeroplane the greatest invention of his lifetime.
His three brothers dabbled in séances at which a table was once supposedly levitated.
Imich sought to become a captain in the Polish navy, but as a Jew was told to forget it. “I decided to become a zoologist and travelled to exotic countries in Africa,” he recalls. But blocked from advancement, he switched to chemistry, earning a doctorate.
In the early 1930s, Imich grew fascinated with a Polish medium who was known as Matylda S, a doctor’s widow gaining renown for séances that reportedly called up the dead. He participated in numerous inexplicable encounters that he detailed in a German scholarly journal in 1932 and recounted in an anthology he edited, Incredible Tales of the Paranormal, published in 1995.
Imich keeps a box of forks and spoons twisted in macropsychokinesis experiments.
When the Nazis overran Poland in 1939, he and wife Wela fled east to Soviet-occupied Bialystok. Refusing to accept Soviet nationality, they were shipped to a freezing labour camp. With Russia reeling under German attack, they were freed and moved to Samarkand, a city in Central Asia, in what is now Uzbekistan, and then back to Poland, where they found that many family members had died in the Holocaust.
In 1951, they immigrated to Waterbury, Connecticut. Wela, a painter and psychotherapist, opened a practice in Manhattan. She died in 1986. After his savings vanished in dubious investments, The New York Times Neediest Cases campaign came to his aid in 2007.
So what are his secrets of longevity? He and his wife never had children. That might have helped, he guessed.
He credited “good genes” and athletics. “I was a gymnast,” he says. “Good runner, a good springer. Good javelin, and I was a good swimmer.”
He used to smoke but gave it up long ago. Alcohol? Never.
He always ate sparingly, inspired by Eastern mystics who disdain food. “There are some people in India who do not eat,” he says admiringly. Now, his home-care aides say, he fancies matzo balls, gefilte fish, chicken noodle soup, Ritz crackers, scrambled eggs, chocolate and ice cream. At the words “ice cream”, Imich perks up. “Jah!” he interjects.