In the spring of 1905, pianist Olga Samaroff was set to make her long-awaited European debut in London. The morning of the concert, she received a terrifying warning by telephone: her abusive ex-husband was in town, and he was threatening to kill her. “I had two Scotland Yard men stationed in the audience,” she wrote later, “and they watched my husband during the recital and were prepared to interpose in case he should try to do anything.” At the concert, he sat in the front row. Nevertheless she took to the stage and triumphed. From that moment, her European success was ensured.
The pianist who became international sensation and pedagogical force-of-nature Olga Samaroff was actually born Lucy Jane Olga Agnes Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas, on 8 August 1880.
Olga’s family life was dominated by strong women. Her maternal grandmother and namesake Lucy Palmer Loening Grunewald (affectionately known as Mawmaw) was born in 1841 and raised on a Louisiana plantation. Lucy Palmer was a fabulously talented young musician, and when she was fifteen, she performed a Beethoven piano concerto with the French Opera orchestra in New Orleans. However, any professional ambitions she held were suppressed, and the following year, she married a wealthy German immigrant twice her age. Within the span of a few years, she gave birth to both a son and a daughter. That daughter was named Jane, and she became a talented pianist herself.
When Jane also married young and gave birth to Olga, and Olga began showing musical promise, Mawmaw was immediately at hand to teach her granddaughter everything she knew. Perhaps she sensed the newfound opportunities opening up for women musicians. In the late 1880s Mawmaw actually brought Olga to New York so that she might play for William Steinway himself. Steinway was so impressed with Olga that he offered to pay for her European training, but the Hickenlooper family was hesitant to upend Olga’s life at such a young age, and so grandmother and granddaughter returned to Texas. In 1890 Mawmaw brought Olga on yet another networking trip, this time to meet composer Edward MacDowell in Detroit at the Music Teacher’s National Association convention. He too recommended a European course of study.
By the time she was fifteen, Olga’s grandmother and mother were pushing hard for Olga to go to Europe. “I was brought up with the idea that I should fit myself for a public career,” Olga later wrote, “but only undertake it ‘if I had to.’ This meant in plain English that if no stalwart male were at hand to relieve me of the necessity to making my living I might play in concerts and should be thoroughly prepared to do so, but there would be no question if I had the choice between matrimony and a career – I should marry!”