Mondo Bizarro | Vintage Pulp Jan 10 2012
YOUNG AT HEART
Age ain’t nothing but a number, baby.

This January 1957 cover of The National Police Gazette introduces America to Javier Pereira, a Zenú Indian from Colombia who claimed to have been born in 1789, a birth year that would have made him 167 at the time the magazine hit newsstands. Pereira had been unknown to the world until he crossed paths in 1955 with a Colombian journalist named Suarez Santander Branger, who ran a paper called Ecos de Córdoba. Branger announced his stunning discovery and very quickly everyone in Colombia wanted to meet the world’s oldest man. Branger orchestrated public appearances for Pereira all over the country, where he was feted alongside the likes of Miss Colombia titleholder Luz Marina Zuluaga, and acclaimed author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Around this time, Douglas Storer, the president of Believe It Or Not, Inc.—which was the parent corporation of Ripley’s—was touring South America looking for strange and unexplainable oddities for the Ripley's Museum in Florida. Storer caught wind of Pereira and swung by Colombia to have a gander at the old man for himself. He must have liked what he saw, because shortly thereafter, Storer flew Pereira to New York City for what he said would be a medical examination. But by “examination” Storer also meant spectacle. He had hordes of press waiting on the tarmac for Pereira when the plane landed, and later paraded him down Fifth Avenue atop a Rolls Royce as New Yorkers turned out to gawk.

Though international fame seemed to suit Pereira just fine, it wasn’t okay with Suarez Santander Branger, who’d received no advance notice of Pereira’s sudden departure from Colombia, and feared losing control of his discovery. Leaving aside the presumptuousness of Branger considering another person to be his property, it's worth noting that he wasn’t just being paranoid. U.S. papers labeled Pereira as Douglas Storer’s discovery. Branger’s name was nowhere to be found. He retaliated by writing an editorial entitled “Javier Pereira es mío,” or, “Javier Pereira Is Mine,” which appeared in most of Colombia’s dailies. In the editorial, he threatened to sue Storer for $167 million—i.e., one million dollars for each year of Pereira’s life. Whether Storer was cowed by Branger or was simply finished with Pereira we don’t know, but he sent the old man back to Colombia and a crisis was averted.

During all of Javier Pereira’s travels he was, of course, asked one question over and over: How have you lived so long? Pereira had a simple answer—he said he chewed cocoa beans, drank lots of coffee, smoked the occasional large cigar, and didn’t worry too much. As to whether he was really 167, the youngest any doctor ever estimated his age to be was 120, and even that doctor prefaced the estimate with the qualifying phrase “at least.” However, the anecdotal evidence for Pereira being older was interesting. For example, though he could not read or write, he had detailed knowledge of historical events that had taken place when he would have been in his twenties and thirties. And many third parties confirmed his age, for example an eighty-six-year-old woman from his town, who recounted meeting him when she was a little girl and he was already an old man.

Pereira's stint in the spotlight had faded by the end of 1957. For a time he resided in a nursing home, but we can’t confirm his whereabouts or the exact circumstances of his death, in March 1958, of heart failure. Today, age-wise, he falls into the inconclusive category. But whatever the actual number, for a while he amazed the world. In Colombia he was sorevered that the government even introduced two 1956 postage stamps bearing his likeness. For those who’d like to see Pereira in action, here's a video clip of his 1955 arrival in New York City, and at this link you can see a silent film of him smooching a flight attendant—the very moment the Police Gazette used for its excellent cover photo-illustration. 

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