Frank J. Wilstach

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Frank J. Wilstach
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BornOctober 20, 1865
Lafayette, Indiana
DiedNovember 28, 1933
CitizenshipUnited States of America
  • Writer
  • Lexicographer
  • Agent
  • Manager

Frank J. Wilstach (October 20, 1865 - November 28, 1933) was a longtime agent and manager for actors and theater and motion picture organizations, a writer, and a lexicographer. He was best known for compiling the Dictionary of Similes, published in 1916, which was followed by a new edition in 1924 and an annual list of the best similes of the year.

Early Life

Frank Jenners Wilstach was born in Lafayette, Indiana, the third of four sons of John Augustine Wilstach and the former Elizabeth Pattee. His father, born in Washington, D.C., was a lawyer and a classical scholar and translator who published English translations of the complete works of Virgil and of Dante's Divine Comedy.[1] John Wilstach also served as Indiana's commissioner of immigration and was sent by Governor Oliver P. Morton to the Exposition Universelle (1867)|Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 to encourage European emigration to the state.[2] Two of Frank Wilstach's brothers, Claxton and Paul, also became prominent writers and theatrical managers.

Wilstach took courses at the University Academy at Purdue University, a prep school for students who were too young for the university or did not wish to complete a full set of courses[3], between 1879 and 1882. He also reportedly studied at Seton Hall College from 1882 to 1884.[4] He did not earn a degree from either institution.


Newspaper Editor and Business Manager

In 1886, Wilstach (as editor) and his brother Claxton (as business manager) published a short-lived weekly newspaper, the Jackson Sunday Times, in Jackson Michigan. It was welcomed by an established Jackson paper as "filled with bright and well written local and society gossip, in conjunction with matter of interest to Sunday readers."[5] (That same paper, after the demise of the brothers' publication, described it as "a sort of semi-society organ, and as Jackson does not happen to be that sort of town it was not what might be termed a glittering success."[6]) The brothers were sued by a local businessman for libel and briefly jailed, though it is unclear what was the eventual outcome of the suit.[7]

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Wilstach worked as a business manager for the Sioux City Tribune in Iowa and the Oakland Tribune in California. His newspaper experience was said to be a factor in his later success as a press agent.[8] [9]

Theatrical Agent

Wilstach did some early work as an advance agent for circuses and Wild West shows, including the Sells Brothers Circus. He also wrote promotional copy for the Starr Opera Company led by George O. Starr who had been an advertising agent for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and would later take over leadership of that circus after the death of James Anthony Bailey.[8] In 1895, Wilstach worked as a promoter for F. F. Proctor's 23rd Street Theater in New York where, according to a 1905 article, he "began to show the ability which later characterized his efforts."[10] He did other work as an agent for the vaudeville comedy duo of Joe Weber (vaudevillian)|Joe Weber and Lew Fields and for the Broadway Theatre (41st Street).[8]

In early 1897, while working for the Broadway Theatre, Wilstach began preparing for the opening of the DeWolf Hopper Company comic opera El Capitan on February 22nd.[11] After the end of that show's run at the Broadway, Wilstach became the agent for Hopper's company, promoting its performances around the country. His press work on behalf of the company was praised by several newspapers, including one that noted "That a good press agent, who can write bright stories, and whose judgment is sound, is a good thing, is evinced by the unusual number of cleverly written articles appearing in the western and California papers about De Wolf Hopper and his company."[12]

Wilstach prepared a 16-page promotional booklet for the Hopper company's 1898 production of The Charlatan (operetta), with music composed by John Philip Sousa and played by Sousa and his band. The booklet was praised by the magazine The Opera Glass which noted "it is handsomely illustrated and contains among other things an amusing article on 'When Hopper comes to town.'"[13] That "amusing article," filled with hyperbolic descriptions of the effect the company has on every town it visits, was reprinted in newspapers. The Washington Times, citing it as an example of the kind of rapturous press release that usually goes into the wastebasket, said "Even the wildest enthusiast could hardly have used the story seriously, but the author's stock of adjectives seemed too good to waste on the desert air...."; the paper ran the piece in full.[14]

In 1899, Wilstach accompanied Hopper and his company to London. British papers, both before and after the trip, portrayed him as an example of the American model of theatrical agent. The newspaper The Era, in a 1900 interview, described him as someone whose "connection with the press, of course, gives him a capital knowledge of what is required of a theatrical press agent who is quite an institution on the other side, where every theater has a writer more or less attached to the staff, who writes up the shows and invents or discovers all kinds of incidents connected with the plays and the players for advertising purposes." [9]

Wilstach took on other actors as well, including Viola Allen, Francis Wilson (actor), William Faversham, Edward Askew Sothern, Julia Marlowe, and Mrs. Leslie Carter. Some of these were arranged under the auspices of Liebler & Co., a theatrical production company that also also had a press agent operation. Wilstach also worked as press agent for the Shubert family and their string of theaters and for producer and theater owner Sam H. Harris (partner and brother-in-law of George M. Cohan.) He was an active member of the New York Friars Club, which began as the Press Agents' Association, and served as its vice president in its early years.[15]


Throughout his time as a theatrical agent -- and both before and after -- Wilstach was also busy as a writer, with articles in newspapers and magazines on the theater, on books, on language, and on other topics. (He even wrote an article on "Better Cows as a Solution of the Milk Problem".)[16]

From 1905 to 1907, he wrote a column called "Micro-Drama-Graphs" for the trade magazine The Billboard (now Billboard (magazine)) that was also widely syndicated in newspapers. Each column was a collection of one-liners most of which contained puns or other wordplay. Many were theater-related. For example: "It is curious how a modest actress will appear in a threadbare play"; "The actor who keeps his eyes steadily fixed on the three stars on a brandy bottle is finally convinced that he is one of them"; "A good many of our song writers have plenty of gas but no meter".

Wilstach wrote columns on a variety of topics for the New York Times Magazine and the "Amusements" section of the Times between 1917 and 1930. In September 1925 he wrote a long profile of Wild Bill Hickok. [17] A year later, his 304-page biography Wild Bill Hickok was published by Doubleday to favorable reviews in the Times [18] and elsewhere. The book served as a major source for the 1936 movie The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper as Hickok.

Hays Organization

In 1927, Wilstach joined the Motion Picture Association Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), commonly called the Hays Organization, as assistant to Will H. Hays with special responsibility for press relations. He was described in one trade publication as "the buffer-state between the Hays organization and the press."[19] He would remain in that position until his death in 1933.

A Dictionary of Similes

A Dictionary of Similes, a compilation he had been working on for more than 20 years. It included more than 15,000 examples from more than 800 authors, indexing them under more than 3,000 topics and, where possible, identifying their first use.

The book was widely reviewed and widely praised. Reviewers said it deserved a place on the shelves of teachers, writers, speakers, and students alongside Roget's Thesaurus and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. [20] [21] The New York Times Review of Books said it "will be found indispensable for every library, public or private." [22] Life magazine used its own similes to describe Wilstach: Mr. Wilstach has been as industrious as a pack-rat, as keen eyed as a clipping bureau and as persistent as a cough in church. His work is as monumental as a mausoleum, and should prove as handy as an orphan asylum. [23]In the preface (and in interviews about the book) Wilstach told how he started working on the compilation in 1894. One day in the spring of that year, when in Boston, I was looking over the morning papers and, being interested in some incident at the State House, read that “the news spread like wildfire.” Having noted the coincidence of all the newspapers using this simile, and having observed its frequent use in the press, I asked a journalistic acquaintance if there was no substitute for “spread like wildfire.” He replied that he had never heard of news spreading in any other way. My curiosity aroused, I stepped into the bookstore of Little, Brown & Company, then located in Washington Street, near the Globe newspaper office, and asked for a “Dictionary of Similes.” The clerk looked in vain over the shelves; then, having fumbled through the leaves of a huge volume, returned with the information that such a book had never been published. As I was actively engaged at the time, I had then no intention of supplying the apparent omission. But from that day I began to copy into a large blank book the similes in every book I read.[24]He described how, while traveling across the country in his role as a theatrical agent, he would visit libraries in many cities, pulling quotations from books in the libraries and in his own extensive collection of books. (There are at least two books from his own collection that have been digitized as part of the Google Books project, complete with his underlining and annotation of terms.)[1][2]

Wilstach's diligence in compiling the dictionary won him praise. Joyce Kilmer, whose 1913 poem Trees (poem) began with one of the best known similes -- "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree" -- wrote a lengthy profile of Wilstach for the New York Times Magazine with the subtitle "Frank J. Wilstach's Ardent and Relentless Hunt for This Elusive Figure of Speech Results in a Remarkable Collection." [25]

Kilmer, who himself engaged in lexicographic work on Funk and Wagnalls' The Standard Dictionary,[26] had provided pre-publication advice to Wilstach on his manuscript of the dictionary.[27] Wilstach had also received advice from Ambrose Bierce, who he had known during his days in the Bay Area. In a 1908 letter to Wilstach, Bierce wrote "Luck to your project of publishing a book of Wilstachian thinglets. May its shadow be flung broadly athwart the land!"[28]

Columnist Franklin P. Adams published a poem -- Lines on Reading Frank J. Wilstach's 'A Dictionary of Similes' in his syndicated column "The Conning Tower"

As neat as wax, as good as new,

As true as steel, as truth is true,

Good as a sermon, keen as hate,

Full as a tick, and fixed as fate--Brief as a dream, long as the day,

Sweet as the rosy morn in May,

Chaste as the moon, as snow is white,

Broad as barn doors, and new as sight--Useful as daylight, firm as stone,

Wet as a fish, dry as a bone,

Heavy as lead, light as a breeze--

Frank Wilstach's book of similes.[29]In the most extensive review of A Dictionary of Similes, Lawrence Gilman of the North American Review called the book "unprecedented and delightful" and "a gigantic and staggering undertaking." "[W]e can think of no one," wrote Gilman, "who might have accomplished this gargantuan adventure more satisfactorily than Mr. Wilstach: for he has shown liberality, fine taste, and an admirable susceptibility to contemporary excellence.”

Gilman, however, questioned how valuable the book would be to good writers

Richly pleasurable as it is, we do not perceive the utility of Mr. Wilstach's collection as an aid to writers, save for those who would willingly deal in the second-hand. For congressmen, political orators, very minor poets, third-rate editorial writers, fourth-rate clergymen, authors of best sellers, Chautauqua moralists--for all those who have a fatalistic conception of style--this book will be manna. But for self-respecting writers, it will be useful chiefly as a deterrent.[30]Wilstach addressed this issue in his usual breezy and whimsical style in the preface to the second edition of the book, in 1924.

several reviewers expressed the fear that general use of this dictionary might incite the intellectual lacunæ to a slavish reliance. Such a contingency need not have been feared, nor has it been justified, except, possibly, in the case of musical comedy librettists. Certainly it was not my purpose to provide a grabbag out of which stencilled intellects might snatch tinselled phrases, scented sentiments, and jewelled periods.

Artists visit galleries, not for the purpose of making slavish copies of the masters, but rather to study technique. Collections of phrases, whether they be dictionaries of poetic or prose quotations, of proverbs, or of similes, may reasonably be regarded by literary artists as galleries where they may ramble, and possibly be tempted to originality. This dictionary, however, was not designed as a crutch for the dullard, but rather as a yeast for the platitudinarian.[31]Following the publication of the enlarged 1924 edition, Wilstach continued to collect new similes, producing an annual selection of the best similes of the year that appeared in the Times and other papers. Several of his columns in the Times Magazine focused on similes and slang in specific fields, particularly theater and film.[32] [33] [34] [35] [36]

Personal Life and Death

Wilstach married Edith Hudnall in San Francisco on July 11, 1889. They had one son, John H. Wilstach (1890-1960), who was a theatrical agent, a novelist, and a magazine writer.

Frank Wilstach died on November 28, 1933 at the age of 68. His death was noted in the New York Times[4] and other newspapers, including papers in Sioux City and Oakland where he had worked early in his career. Walter Winchell published a tribute to Wilstach sent to him by the writer Jim Tully who praised Wilstach for his work on similes and also as "the world's greatest book collector."[37] His death was also noted in trade journals, including a lengthy obituary in Motion Picture Herald which, while also noting his work on similes, described Wilstach's long career this way:

Few men have had a wider acquaintance among authors, actors and producers in the entertainment business. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the theatre, and many notable figures of the American stage were helped in their rise to fame by the exploitation campaigns conducted by him.[38]


  1. "New Publications". Indianapolis Journal. Indianapolis, IN. 14 Dec 1888. p. 7.
  2. "Emigration". Evansville Journal. Evansville IN. 12 Jan 1867. p. 3.
  3. The Fifth Annual Register of Purdue University 1878-79. Purdue University. 1878. p. 27.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Frank J. Wilstach Dies in Hospital". New York Times. 29 Nov 1933. p. 19. Retrieved 17 Sep 2021.
  5. "The Sunday Times". Jackson Citizen-Patriot. Jackson, MI. 23 Nov 1885. p. 5.
  6. "How the Mighty Have Fallen". Jackson Citizen-Patriot. Jackson, MI. 12 May 1887. p. 5.
  7. "Editors Arrested: The Editors of the Sunday Times in Jail for Libel". Jackson Citizen-Patriot. Jackson, MI. 31 Jul 1886. p. 1.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 "Press Representatives Series". The Billboard. 10 Nov 1906. p. 5.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "London's Business Managers.The American Theatrical Trust: A Chat with Frank J. Wilstach". The Era. London. 24 Feb 1900. p. 11.
  10. Grau, Robert (1905). "XV". The Business Man in the Amusement World: A Volume of Progress in the Field of the Theatre. New York: Broadway Publishing Company. pp. 304–305.
  11. "Theatrical Gossip". New York Times. 2 Feb 1897. p. 7.
  12. "Dramatic Notes". Sioux City Journal. Sioux City, IA. 30 May 1897. p. 3.
  13. "Opera glass. v.5 (1898)". HathiTrust. Retrieved 2021-09-18.
  14. "The Stage". Washington Times. Washington, DC. 2 Oct 1898. p. 21.
  15. Jones, D.M. (20 Mar 1909). "The Friars -- A Unique Theatrical Club -- Its Beginnings and Its Present Status". New York Star. p. 14.
  16. Wilstach, F.J. (22 June 1919). "Better Cows as a Solution of the Milk Problem". New York Times Magazine. pp. 8–9. Retrieved 19 Sep 2021.
  17. Wilstach, Frank J. (13 Sep 1925). "Time Widens Wild Bill Hickok's Fame". New York Times Magazine. p. 10. Retrieved 19 Sep 2021.
  18. ""Wild Bill" Hickok, "Prince of Pistoleers"; WILD BILL HICKOK. By Frank J. Wilstach. Illustrated with eight photographs. 304 pp. New York: Doubleday. Page & Co. $2.50". Retrieved 2021-09-19.
  19. "It's Just Too Awful Bad When You Try to Be Nice and Have This Happen!". Exhibitors Herald-World. 11 Jan 1930. p. 17. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.
  20. "An Invaluable Work". Judge. 20 Jan 1917. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.
  21. "News and Gossip of Books and Authors". New York Tribune. 16 Sep 1916. p. 7.
  22. "Five Hundred Leading Autumn Books". New York Times Book Review. 8 Oct 1916. p. 420.
  23. "The Latest Books". Life. 7 Dec 1916. p. 1056. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.
  24. Wilstach, Frank J. (1916). A Dictionary of Similes. Boston, MA: Little, Brown. pp. ix–x.
  25. Kilmer, Joyce (22 Oct 1916). "Spent 22 Years Collections 15,000 Cimiles". New York Times Magazine. p. 14. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.
  26. "The tragedy of Joyce Kilmer, the Catholic poet killed in World War I". America Magazine. 2018-07-27. Retrieved 2021-09-22.
  27. Letter from Joyce Kilmer to Frank J. Wilstach. 27 Jan 1916. Frank Jenners Wilstach papers. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations
  28. Letter from Ambrose Bierce to Frank J. Wilstach. 5 Dec 1908. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.
  29. Adams, Franklin P. (7 Nov 1916). "The Conning Tower". Buffalo Courier. p. 8.
  30. Gilman, Lawrence (Jan 2017). "The Book of the Month: Figuratively Speaking". The North American Review. Vol. 205: 734. pp. 137–142.
  31. Wilstach, Frank J. (1924). A Dictionary of Similes (Revised and Enlarged ed.). Boston, MA: Little, Brown. pp. viii–ix.
  32. Wilstach, Frank J. (29 Oct 1916). "Similes of the Stage". Section 2. New York Times. p. 7. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.
  33. Wilstach, Frank J. (4 Aug 1918). "War a Fertile Field for Makers of Similes". New York Times Magazine. p. 11. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.
  34. Wilstach, Frank J. (24 Sep 1922). "Rhapsodic Rhetoric of Sport". New York Times Book Review and Magazine. p. 8. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.
  35. Wilstach, Frank J. (2 Oct 1927). "Hollywood Rhetoric in Titles". Amusements. New York Times. p. 7. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.
  36. Wilstach, Frank J. (11 Mar 1928). "Slang of Film Men". Amusements. New York Times. p. 8. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.
  37. Winchell, Walter (8 Dec 1933). "Winchell on Broadway: Jim Tully Writes Concerning Wilstach". Akron Beacon Journal [and other papers]. p. 23.
  38. "Frank Wilstach Dead; In Theatre All His Life". Motion Picture Herald. 2 Dec 1933. p. 48. Retrieved 20 Sep 2021.

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