January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

WHEN ANDRE-FRANCOIS RAFFRAY agreed to buy Jeanne Calment’s four-room apartment in Arles, France, in 1965, he thought he was getting a good deal. Under the French viager, or “for life,” system, Raffray, a notary public, would pay Calment the equivalent of $500 dollars a month and allow her to live in the flat until her death. In return, he would own the apartment when she died and could have room to expand his adjacent office. Such arrangements are common enough in France and, since Calment was 90 years old, how long could she last? Last month, Raffray went to his grave still wondering.

Raffray, 77, died of cancer at his home in Arles on Christmas Day, having paid Calment more than $175,000, about three times the value of the apartment. Calment, meanwhile, now 120 and the oldest documented person alive, dined on salad with chicken liver, roast duck and bûche de Noël as the star guest at a banquet hosted by the mayor of Arles. Although she wasn’t told of Raffray’s passing, she likely would have been sympathetic. “It happens in life that we make bad deals,” she teased Raffray on her birthday last February.

Although Raffray was reportedly frustrated at not getting the room to expand his office, he and Calment maintained a friendly relationship. Known for her wit and mischievous sense of humor, Calment would occasionally send Raffray notes apologizing for “still being here.” And though he could legally have taken over the fiat in 1985 when Calment moved into a nursing home, the notary had let the second-floor space stand empty out of consideration for her feelings. “He didn’t want to touch it as long as she was around,” said a neighbor.

With Raffray’s death, his son and daughter will be required to continue the monthly payment to Calment. And they might take note of her unflagging joie de vivre. Asked recently how she’d feel about living to age 125, her response was simple: “Why be pessimistic?”

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