What to make of Street Poison, Justin Gifford’s biography of the notorious hustler, Iceberg Slim? It’s certainly not a redemption story; Slim–born Robert Beck in Chicago in 1918–was not often a good man, having turned early to crime and, following a master class in hustling across several prison stints, a 25-year career as a pimp. But Slim wasn’t without a certain kind of redemption, either; after retiring from his criminal pursuits, he put pen to paper to produce Pimp: The Story of My Life, launching an unlikely second career as a bestselling author, selling millions of copies of his autobiography–and the handful of titles that followed–anyplace but where books are usually sold. Inspiring generations of writers and performers–including Donald Goines, Dave Chappelle, Ice-T, and Ice-Cube (the latter two choosing their pseudonyms as homage)–Iceberg Slim codified a unique American subculture, transforming it into popular culture in the process. Ultimately, Street Poison is a compulsively readable story of an unseemly man, whose legacy was as unforeseeable as it was impactful.
Here author Justin Gifford presents a brief portrait of Iceberg Slim. Street Poison is an August 2015 selection for Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. Also available: Shetani’s Sister, a newly discovered novel from Vintage Crime.
A Brief Biography of Iceberg Slim by Author Justin Gifford
Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck (1918-1992) was an African American pimp-turned-author of paperback crime novels who laid groundwork for blaxploitation film, gangster rap, and street literature. Born in Chicago during the height of The Great Migration, Beck grew up running the streets of Milwaukee’s black neighborhood of Bronzeville. After he was kicked out of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute at 18, Beck turned to street hustling and pimping. With a photographic memory, he learned the game by adopting the cool mannerisms and street talk of urban legends like Albert “Baby” Bell, enforcer for the black mob in Chicago.
Over the course of his 25 years in the profession, Beck served five bits in prison, including 2 years in the notorious Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. It was behind bars where Beck enlarged his understanding of street hustling by studying psychoanalysis and literature. He read Sigmund Freud, Oscar Wilde, and George du Maurier, and he plotted new ways to manipulate women into a life of prostitution. Many years later, Beck would transform his passion for literature and his encyclopedic knowledge of the pimp game into some of the most influential American literature of the twentieth century.
Robert Beck at the age of fifteen. By this time, he had committed his first crimes on the streets of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville.
In 1947, Beck was arrested for larceny and incarcerated at the Chicago House of Corrections, a prison known for working its inmates hard on the coal pile. Fresh from the joint, Beck decided to escape rather than serve another lengthy term. He scaled the 20-foot wall one night, and he evaded the police for the next 14 years. Beck was recaptured in 1961, and after serving 10 months in solitary confinement, he decided to give up pimping.
He moved to Los Angeles to be with ailing mother, and after she died, he started a common law marriage with young white woman named Betty Shue. With Shue’s help as editor and typist, Beck published his autobiography Pimp with a third-tier paperback press called Holloway House. They sold millions of his books in liquor stores, mom-and-pop groceries, and barbershops, and he became enormously popular in prisons, inner-city communities, and on military bases. Throughout the 1970s, Beck was the most important underground black American writer, publishing 4 novels, an essay collection, a short story anthology, and a spoken work album.
Robert Beck and his first partner in crime, Joe "Party Time" Evans, a mentor described by Beck as a character with a "head full of wild risky hustles."
After Beck’s health started to fail in the early 1980s, he retired from publishing books and went into seclusion. He and Betty had split up by this point, and he married Diane Millman in 1982. For much of the rest of his life, Beck lived in a small studio apartment on Crenshaw. He worked on two unpublished novels, Shetani’ Sister and Night Train to Sugar Hill, but his strained relationship with his publisher kept him from releasing them before his death in 1992.
Beck’s influence on contemporary American culture can be felt everywhere. Pimp inspired hundreds of young black writers—including Donald Goines, Sapphire, and Vickie Stringer—and they published their own stories of poverty, crime, and violence, thus giving rise to the genre of street literature. Rappers Jay Z, Notorious B.I.G., and Snoop Dogg were all influenced by Iceberg Slim, while Ice T and Ice Cube took their stage names as an homage to him. Dave Chappelle has repeatedly employed Iceberg Slim in his standup, and Chris Rock gives out copies of Pimp at the rap of every movie, saying, “All of the questions of life can be answered if you read this book.”
Mike Tyson, to Beck’s left, met his literary hero and mentor in the late 1980s, after Iron Mike had become heavyweight champion.
All photographs courtesy Diane Beck
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