Skip to main content

From Warhol to Hendrix to boy in love, rejection letters revealed

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
  • Editor Bill Shapiro writes about rejection letters in a bad economy
  • Rejections are becoming more common at companies, schools and banks
  • Andy Warhol's art pieces were rejected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York
  • The Army discharged Jimi Hendrix because he couldn't "carry on an intelligent conversation"

(CNN) -- The first rejection came in a letter on his camp bunk bed. It took only four words to sting the little boy's heart.

"Billy, I like Jason."

More than three decades later, the young camper Billy -- Bill Shapiro -- would take the concept of rejection and compile the book "Other People's Rejection Letters." Shapiro, who is also the editor-in-chief of, released his book last month, which examines the pitfalls, pain and even unintentional upsides of rejection letters from schools, careers and personal relationships.

In the book, the rejections are unveiled in all forms -- from crumpled letters to iPhone texts, Post-it notes and Facebook messages.

Shapiro's book comes at a time when rejections have become more common during an economic recession. Job prospects remain bleak as the economy slowly recovers. This spring, several colleges reported the lowest acceptance rates in history. And, there are always personal rejections everyone is bound to encounter.

Even the most infamous and successful talents have been rejected at one point in their lives, Shapiro says. His book features a rejection letter from 1956, when budding artist Andy Warhol had his entries declined by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Or one of Shapiro's personal favorites: The Army considered discharging Jimi Hendrix because his supervisors said he couldn't "carry on an intelligent conversation" in 1962.

That was, of course, before Hendrix's musical career exploded.

CNN interviewed Bill Shapiro about rejection, the economy and what to make of the difficult times.

CNN: Why did you create this book?

Shapiro: The idea of looking at other people's personal correspondence in a voyeuristic way was interesting to me. A couple years ago, as we started to see the economy slip and go downhill a bit, I started to think that looking at rejection letters would be a really good way to look at what so many people would be experiencing and feeling.

CNN: What kind of rejections were you finding in this economic climate?

Shapiro: It turns out that it was even more rejection than anyone thought. It hit across so many sectors. In the beginning, I thought it would be a lot of job rejection letters. Well, then I saw people get rejected from the platinum card or "I can't get the school loans" or art funds are drying up.

CNN: You share with readers about your first love rejection as a child in summer camp. How did you take that rejection?

Shapiro: It was my first "having my legs cut out from under me" moment. It was the first of many rejections. I suspect that it made me hate her, and it made me hate Jason on some level. But really, it made me feel terrible about myself.

CNN: Why did you decide to collect rejection letters throughout history?

Shapiro: People need to remember people have been getting rejected since the beginning of time. Your rejection isn't the end of the world. I wanted to go back in time to show, and to give that sense, that this has been happening. But I wanted to get famous people's rejections to show [that] these people who we think of as being super successful also faced rejection.

CNN: Like Jimi Hendrix's Army rejection?

Shapiro: He [Hendrix] is in the Army, and there is a letter written by a commanding officer seeking him to be discharged because he can't hold an intelligent conversation and all he does is think about and talk about his guitar. I love the fact that the Army really actually got Jimi Hendrix and knew he wasn't a good fit. In hindsight, this guy who became a rock and roll god only found that out because he was rejected from the Army.

CNN: Did you experience rejections early on in your writing and editing career?

Shapiro: I remember one of the first jobs I was trying to get into in publishing. It was to be an assistant to publisher of a legal newspaper. I went in, and I met the publisher, and he was this terrible ogre of a guy and kind of a mean guy. He said, "Bill, I want someone to be just like me. Can you be just like me?" I did not get the job, and I am so lucky I didn't get the job.

CNN: How do you suggest getting over a rejection?

Shapiro: I would think about it in context. There are a lot of amazingly talented people who have been rejected over the years, in love and in work and creative pursuits. You're not alone out there. You are in damn fine company when you are rejected, and so often people don't recognize genius when it's put in front of them.

I wouldn't take it personally. There are so many reasons why things like this don't work out that may have nothing to do with you.

I would save your rejection letter, because you'll want to look back on it years from now and know that you took a bold chance and you didn't sit on your hands, scared to take a risk. Only by putting yourself out there you are going to get the thing you're trying for.

CNN: Are certain types of rejection harder to handle than others?

Shapiro: It all depends on the person. I think for a lot of people, a work rejection is easier to accept to than a personal or love rejection. I think the worst is a rejection by a parent, because a parent is a person who is sort of supposed to love you unconditionally. And for them to reject you is just an incredibly painful thing.

There is a letter toward the end of the book, a four-page, caustic, bitter rejection from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter. He basically says you've done nothing to please me or make me proud. Imagine getting a letter like that. It just rips your heart out.

CNN: Does rejection get easier over time?

Shapiro: I think if you're someone who experiences a lot of rejection -- typically artists and writers and people in creative fields -- it does. Every time you are putting yourself out there, over time, you get perspective and you realize rejection is part of life.

I think when it comes to love rejection, I don't think it ever gets easier. I think you might say, "I will go out there to keep trying," but I think the bite of that simply doesn't get easier.

CNN: What is your favorite rejection letter in the book?

Shapiro: There is one that I love where a prospective applicant was told that Princeton University has no law school. I love that because the guy who applied to Princeton's "law school" just didn't know. He ended up getting into Harvard and graduating from there. He ended up being extremely successful. In the end, there was life after rejection.