The decisive influence of her paternal grandmother may explain why. An avid collector of emerging art, Hoffmann’s grandmother, also named Maja, created the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation in 1933 to honor her husband, who had died when his car was hit by a train when Hoffmann’s father was still a child. Soon after, Hoffmann’s grandmother married the conductor Paul Sacher and designed and built a grand, Bauhaus-inspired villa near Basel. She had dreamed of being an architect like her father but became a sculptor instead, and it was on family visits from Arles to her Basel estate that, as a young girl, Hoffmann began to understand how works of art could charge the space around them. “There were discoveries all the time—James Ensor’s Le Masque Arraché, Aristide Maillol’s big naked statues of women in the garden,” recalls Hoffmann. “But it wasn’t only what I was seeing—my grandmother was also confiding in me her wishes and dreams, so I always felt very privileged.”
Hoffmann’s grandmother collected Pablo Picasso, Jean Arp, Fernand Léger, and Georges Braque, and she enjoyed close friendships with a number of artists. Jean Tinguely was a regular visitor; when Paul Klee came to stay in the guest room, he preferred that the works of his hanging there were turned to face the wall. When Hoffmann was born, Jean Cocteau sent her mother a note of congratulations; when Hoffmann turned 21, Tinguely made her a birthday card that’s now displayed in her Basel apartment. By then, her grandmother had decided that Hoffmann’s youthful sensibilities would be a welcome addition to the foundation.
“Her grandmother saw something of herself in Maja,” observes the Swiss theater director Werner Düggelin, then one of two non-family members on the foundation’s board, who saw something else the day he met Hoffmann. He was 47; she was 20. “She was so beautiful,” he recalled recently in Basel, suddenly pulling out Polaroids of her from a time when she looked like a young Simone Signoret. “I dropped dead on the floor when I met her. She was wild—in the best sense of the word—and curious. She wasn’t interested in being the heiress of Roche. Her parents didn’t give her much money then, and this was very good for her. Later,” he added with a wry laugh, “they gave her too much.”
The pair fell in love and lived together in Basel and Zurich for seven years, “with me as his very young girlfriend,” said Hoffmann, smiling at the memory. “My mother was superworried.” An important mentor to Hoffmann, Düggelin “was this sexy older man, kind of a flower child and very inventive,” says the artist Izhar Patkin. He was also one of the most distinguished directors in Europe: He’d worked with Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco. Hoffmann assisted Düggelin in the theater, giving notes on actors and later making films with him. “She had a great nose for good actors,” he told me. “I was convinced she’d become some kind of artist.”