WASHINGTON, Missouri. This town of 14,000 on the banks of the Missouri River is known as the “Corncob Pipe Capital of the World,” a distinction that draws smokers from around the world to the Missouri Meerschaum factory here. “It would be a shame if they ever left,” says Matthew Oldenberger, an expert on the subject. “I would have to make substantial revisions to my two-volume treatise on the corncob pipe–which you can buy on amazon.com for only $14.95.”
But to music lovers, Washington is better known as the Zither Capital of the World, after Franz Schwarzer, the 19th century master craftsman who built a zither empire here that reached its peak in 1873, when three of the stringed instruments he made won the Gold Medal of Progress at the Vienna Exposition. “That was pretty much the Woodstock for the zither,” says Hubert Noals, a curator of zithers at the National Museum of Forgotten Stringed Instruments in Arlington, Virginia. “Anti-German sentiment increased with World War I, so I guess you’d say that was the zither’s Altamont,” he adds, referring to the disastrous free concert in 1969 at which a man was killed by motorcycle gang members providing security for The Rolling Stones.
But now zither enthusiasts see the instrument making a comeback, as Fritz Kleinschmidt, considered by many to be the “Jimi Hendrix of the Zither,” has moved back to Washington to write his memoirs and compile his Greatest Hits, Vol. 4. “It is an opportunity for me to reflect,” he tells this reporter. “I have been such a hot shot for so long, time for me to cool down.”
Prompted by guitarist John Mayer’s recent revelation that he has had sex with five hundred women during seventeen years of sexual activity, Kleinschmidt makes a revelation of his own. “So many I have lost count,” he says, shaking his head as an easy smile comes to his lips. “It was either four or five.”
Asked to give the salacious details, Kleinschmidt plunges right in. “First there was Margie Hoffmeister. Her brother Johan asked me to sleep over, I was only ten, she was twelve. We were watching Revenge of the Cheesemongers on a portable television set. She was so scared, she crawled into bed with me–fully clothed!”
“Oh no! Anything but Limburger!”
He goes on to give details of other encounters with women who succumbed to his romantic stylings on the instrument that may have from thirty to an astonishing fifty-two strings. “Eve-Elise Wehrmacht-Schnizen was my favorite,” he reminisces fondly. “A woman with two hyphens–incredible!”
Some town fathers and mothers are embarrassed by Kleinschmidt’s prurient late-in-life revelations, but say there is little or nothing they can do to silence him given inconvenient American notions of “free speech” that are alien to their Austro-Hungarian heritage. “Besides corncob pipes and zithers, the only thing we have to hang our hat on is that we are the birthplace of Con Chapman, a failed novelist,” says town historian Mathias Werner. “And we have been trying to live that down for nearly three score and ten years.”