Celebrating other people’s rejection letters

THE WORKING STIFF — By Darren Garnick
The Boston Herald (May 12, 2010)
Based on its impressive princess roster that includes a Native American explorer (Pocahontas), an African-American frog (Tiana) and an Asian warrior (Mulan), today’s Walt Disney Company hardly can be accused of ignoring women or ethnic diversity.

But its corporate culture wasn’t always so female-friendly off camera.  Young Arkansas artist Mary Ford saved this 1938 Snow White rejection letter for 65 years until her death: “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that work is performed entirely by young men. For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school.”

Magnified in cruelty by an evil witch hovering over a poison apple in the corner, the rejection letter did offer a flicker of hope. “Girls” are qualified to “trace the characters on clear celluloid sheets with India ink and filling in the tracings on the reverse side with paint according to directions.”  But don’t bother showing up to Hollywood, because there are few openings and too many applicants.

Fprd went on to become a middle school art teacher, despite being allegedly unfit to slave in a paint-by-numbers sweatshop.

Her stunning snub is featured in “Other People’s Rejection Letters,” a new anthology of career failure, romantic relationship disasters, cute letdowns and outrageously nasty trash talk. Compiled by journalist Bill Shapiro, editor-in-chief of Life.com, the scrapbook-like collection mixes the mundane form letter with handwritten screeds and government documents.

In a 1962 performance review for U.S. Army Private Jimi Hendrix, his superior officer snarkily remarks that “his mind apparently can not function while performing duties and thinking about his guitar.”  In 1956, pop artist Andy Warhol donated a sketch of a shoe to the Museum of Modern Art. He was coldly asked to retrieve it  at his convenience.  And aerospace engineer Clay Anderson’s 15th rejection letter from the NASA training program is included for those who believe in the “Never Give Up” mantra.  He was accepted on his next try.

“If you don’t ever get rejected, I believe that you’re not stretching yourself, you’re not taking enough risks in life,” insists Shapiro. “Rejection letters are a badge of courage that you took a shot at something.”

As a magazine editor over the years, Shapiro has authored “more than a bazillion” rejection letters, which he says he has strived to make “short and somewhat sensitive.”  The only thing worse than getting a rejection letter, he claims, is not getting one — not being acknowledged at all.

Not of all of Shapiro’s discoveries are mean spirited. Rock and roll drummer Bill Dobrow, who toured with the Black Crowes, was politely dissed by the U.S. Marines at age 12. He did score a free iron-on eagle decal, however. Sportswriter Danny Brown received similar well wishes when he tried to apply for the San Francisco Giants manager’s job at age 13.

“Other People’s Rejection Letters” may ultimately become a time capsule of what rejection felt like before Facebook, text messages and email. Inclusion of those formats makes the vintage stationery and company letterhead stand out as unique and begs the question: Are rejection letters losing their personality?

Shapiro ventures way beyond career disappointments. Countless mourners of Michael Jackson received “regret to inform you” emails when they tried to register for a free seat at his public funeral. Shifting to the sports world, he also includes a profanity-laden graffiti conversation about the Red Sox vs. Yankees.

Diplomatically, Shapiro refuses to take sides in the Manhattan bathroom wall debate, which involves fans “rejecting” the validity of each other’s opinions.

“I’m not a baseball fan,” he explains. “I’m a rejection fan!”

See some of Darren Garnick’s heartbreaking rejection letters at The Working Stiff blog.

Women need not apply.


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