Olga Samaroff, concert pianist, author, and teacher, was born Lucy Jane Olga Hickenlooper at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, on August 8, 1880. She was the daughter of Carlos and Jane (Loening) Hickenlooper. Soon after her birth, her father resigned his army commission and resettled the family, first in Houston and then (until 1900) in Galveston, where Lucy was tutored at the Ursuline convent.
Both her mother and her maternal grandmother, Lucy (Palmer) Loening Grünewald, who had also been a concert pianist in the United States and Europe, recognized her ability very early in life. By age ten, Lucy Hickenlooper had performed for musicians who recommended European training. With her grandmother Grünewald, she moved to Paris in 1894. A year later she won a scholarship to the Paris Conservatoire, the first American woman to do so. There she studied with Elie M. Delaborde. After graduation in 1897, she worked with the Russian pianist–teacher Ernst Jedliczka in Berlin and with Ernest Hutcheson in Baltimore. Over her relatives' protests around 1900 she married Boris Loutzky, a Russian civil servant, who took her back to St. Petersburg. For over three years she devoted her time to general music studies away from the keyboard and expanded her musical horizons. When Loutzky turned out to be cruel, she divorced him and began an earnest effort at a concert career.
To aid the effort, she changed her name from Hickenlooper to Samaroff around 1904–05, borrowed money from a wealthy Cincinnati relative for a concert debut, and acquired an enterprising manager. She became internationally successful and was admired for "tonal color, warmth, and intellectual control." She performed with the New York Symphony Orchestra in 1908 and with the Boston Symphony. A severe illness in 1910, and her subsequent marriage to neophyte conductor Leopold Stokowski in 1911, forced her again to take time out from touring. She was married to Stokowski during his leadership of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1909–12) and of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1912–36). She pushed both of them toward recording, then a very new enterprise. She was the first American woman pianist to present all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas in recital. Samaroff and Stokowski were divorced in 1923.
Following an arm injury in 1926, Samaroff turned to teaching and writing for money and a stable life with her only child, Sonya Stokowski. In 1925 she accepted a position at the newly-founded Juilliard Graduate School, and for many years was the only American-born member of the piano faculty. She also chaired the piano department of the Philadelphia Conservatory, beginning in January 1928. In addition, she served as a music critic for the New York Evening Post from 1926 to 1928. For the next two decades (1928–48) she reigned as a powerful, demanding teacher. For her students she was able to obtain scholarships and patrons, arrange important social contacts with managers and conductors, and help secure employment during the depression years. She initiated and organized two programs—the Schubert Memorial Foundation (1928) and the Laymen's Music Courses (1932)—meant to provide professional performance opportunities for music students and educate audiences in music study. She published The Layman's Music Course (1935) and An American Musician's Story (1939), an autobiography. Her experiences in Russia and with Stokowski made her emphasize contemporary music and the importance of media attention at premieres.
Her most famous performing students—William Kapell, Eugene List, Raymond Lewenthal, Joseph Battista, Rosalyn Tureck, Alexis Weissenberg—usually made their careers specializing in contemporary or specific period literature. Samaroff's pedagogical method stressed artistic independence, the concept that each student was to work out his individual approach on a composition. She decried the artist–coach technique in which the teacher talked through or showed a student each part of a work. Consequently, her students' performances were quite varied.
In addition to her teaching, Samaroff was involved in numerous public activities related to music. During the Great Depression she helped organize the Musicians' Emergency Aid (later Musicians' Emergency Fund), and in 1935 she became one of twenty-five musicians chosen to help the Federal Music Project of the Work Projects Administration plan work-relief programs. Her various awards included honorary doctor of music degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (1931) and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (1943). In 1944 President Roosevelt appointed her a member of the Advisory Committee on Music to the Department of State. Olga Samaroff died in New York City on May 17, 1948, and her body was cremated.