Wilder Building, 1 E Main St, Rochester, NY 14614
Sagamore Hotel, East Avenue, Rochester, NY
Algonquin Hotel, 59 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036
Saint Agnes Cemetery Avon, Livingston County, New York, USA
Alexander Lafayette Chew "Alec" Wilder (February 16, 1907 – December 24, 1980) was an American composer. The life of Alec Wilder, the man and the musician, may never be wrapped up neatly. There are enough unanswered questions to keep the jury out for a long time. Was he, for example, a practicing homosexual? By his own account, and by the estimate of most of his friends, almost certainly not; and yet there remains a small shadow of doubt. One friend who feels Winder was gay suggests that his denial flowed from the "Edwardian, not to say, Victorian, household he was born into. He never escaped the unforgiving hand of his heritage." Yet actual evidence of homosexual encounters does not seem to be there.
Hildegarde Lasell, a friend of Clayla Louise Ward and Charlotte Whitney Allen, married James Sibley Watson, Jr., co-publisher ofThe Dial, and the Watsons recruited Herbert Morland Stern and Alec Wilder as actor and advisor for two classics of the late silent cinema, The Fall of the House of Usher and Lot in Sodom. Wilder's work with Watson on these pioneering amateur films served as his introduction to this exciting new medium. That early association between Wilder and Watson was also the beginning of a friendship that was to last fifty years and was to be one of the great joys of Wilder's life. In 1975 he wrote to Watson from the Algonquin Hotel. "Forgive me, my most patient and loving and constant friend for subjecting my tribulations upon you. But you are, and always have been, my mentor, my spiritual and creative stanchion." Wilder's autobiographical Letters I Never Mailed was dedicated to Watson. When Wilder was drafted for WWII, the person who would always knew his address was Watson.
Wilder was born in Rochester, New York to a prominent family; the Wilder Building downtown (at the "Four Corners") bears the family's name. As a young boy, he traveled to New York City with his mother and stayed at the Algonquin Hotel. It would later be his home for the last 40 or so years of his life. He attended several prep schools, unhappily, as a teenager. Around this time, he hired a lawyer and essentially "divorced" himself from his family, gaining for himself some portion of the family fortune. He was largely self-taught as a composer; he studied privately with the composers Herman Inch and Edward Royce, who taught at the Eastman School of Music in the 1920s, but never registered for classes and never received his degree. While there, he edited a humor magazine and scored music for short films directed by James Sibley Watson, Jr.. Wilder was eventually awarded an honorary degree in 1973. He was good friends with Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and others who helped develop the American popular music canon. Among the popular songs he wrote or co-wrote were "I'll Be Around" (a hit for the Mills Brothers), "While We're Young" (recorded by Peggy Lee and many others), "Blackberry Winter", "Where Do You Go?" (recorded by Sinatra) and "It's So Peaceful in the Country". He also wrote many songs for the cabaret artist Mabel Mercer, including one of her signature pieces, "Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden's?". Wilder also occasionally wrote his own lyrics, including for his most famous song "I'll Be Around". Other lyricists he worked with included Loonis McGlohon, William Engvick, Johnny Mercer and Fran Landesman. In addition to writing popular songs, Wilder also composed classical pieces for exotic combinations of orchestral instruments. The Alec Wilder Octet, including Eastman classmate Mitch Miller on oboe, recorded several of his originals for Brunswick Records in 1938-40. His classical numbers, which often had off-beat, humorous titles ("The Hotel Detective Registers"), were strongly influenced by jazz. He wrote eleven operas; one of which, Miss Chicken Little (1953), was commissioned for television by CBS. Wilder also arranged a series of Christmas carols for Tubachristmas. Sinatra conducted the Columbia String Orchestra on "Frank Sinatra Conducts the Music of Alec Wilder", an album of Wilder's classical music (1946). Wilder also contributed two tone poems, "Grey" and "Blue", to the 1956 album "Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color". Wilder wrote the definitive book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950 (1972). He was also featured in a radio series based on the book, broadcast in the middle to late 1970s. With lyricist Loonis McGlohon (his cohost on the radio series) he composed songs for the Land of Oz theme park in Banner Elk, North Carolina. Wilder loved puzzles: he created his own cryptic crosswords, and could spend hours with a jigsaw puzzle. He also loved to talk (he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the world) and most of all, laugh. Displeased with how Peggy Lee improvised the ending of While We're Young, he wrote her a note: "The next time you come to the bridge [of the song], jump!" Pianist Marian McPartland told the story of this "alleged" comment to Tony Bennett on her "Piano Jazz" radio show in 2004. Wilder died in Gainesville, Florida and is buried in a Catholic cemetery in Avon, New York, outside Rochester.
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