For many of his 73 years on the planet, Robert Beck—aka “Iceberg Slim,” the subject of a new biography, Street Poison, by African-American literature professor Justin Gifford—was a lousy human being.
Beck—who by his own account violently brutalized women during his quarter-century-long career as a pimp, and later mythologized his felonious lifestyle in a best-selling memoir and a series of popular pulp novels—raised misogyny to an art form.
The smooth-talking, cold-hearted Beck, whose nom de plume celebrated his detached and chilly streetwise demeanor, was the vain and selfish only son of an irresponsible mother; a careless father of three mixed-race daughters and the estranged stepfather of a Caucasian son; and a manipulative and philandering husband who only redeemed himself in a second marriage late in life as his years of prison, drugs, and hard living took their inevitable toll.
Albeit ghetto-famous, with countless fans, he died penniless in Los Angeles of diabetes and gangrene; his fancy above-ground berth at Forest Lawn was paid for by Mike Tyson, one of Beck’s many celebrity devotees, who also include Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Quincy Jones, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Ice Cube, and Ice-T (the last of whom co-produced a 2012 documentary tribute, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp).
And yet, by Gifford’s estimation and that of others, Beck—born Robert Lee Moppins Jr. (later Frenchified to Maupins) in the slums of 1918 white-racist Chicago—was also one of the more influential voices in 20th century black culture and literature, to be ranked alongside James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.
Indeed, Iceberg Slim’s 1967 novelistic and poetic autobiography, Pimp: The Story of My Life, and his later works are widely credited with inspiring the Blaxploitation film genre and the beginnings of hip-hop and rap. His nine published books—translated into a dozen languages while one, Trick Baby, was adapted into a feature film—had sold an estimated 6 million copies by the time of his death, which might have made him the J.K. Rowling of black pulp fiction, if only his royalties were commensurate with his sales.
Beck’s pain and rage at having been callously exploited by his white-owned publisher, Holloway House—much as he had exploited and abused his revolving stable of prostitutes—is a recurring theme in Gifford’s meticulously-researched narrative.
Perhaps some full disclosure is appropriate here: I am a middle-aged, middle-class white Upper West Sider who had never heard of Iceberg Slim until The Daily Beast’s book editor sent me a copy of the biography with the message: “Call me crazy...I don’t know exactly why, but I keep thinking you’re the person to review [it].”
The fact that Beck’s biographer is also white and middle-aged—an academic of somewhat younger vintage, Gifford teaches at the University of Nevada—is testament to the enduring crossover appeal of Iceberg Slim’s story.
It begins in Chicago’s Black Belt, during a period of lethal viciousness by white thugs against African Americans who dared venture out of the ghetto. Terrible race riots and mass murders comprised a history of violence that doubtless shaped Iceberg Slim’s adult identity as a revolutionary and Black Panther partisan.
Three incidents in his childhood seem to have left a searing imprint and shaped his future.
His biological father, a cook who’d grown up in “Nashville’s upwardly mobile and respectable black working-class society,” according to Gifford, had plunged headlong into the Black Belt demimonde of whoring and gambling, and saw his son as an inconvenience.
His mother, Mary, left her husband, taking her infant son with her, after refusing his demand that the baby be abandoned on a church doorstep—“so,” Iceberg Slim recounted, “he hurled me against the wall in disgust.”
The second formative experience—the memory of which forever haunted Beck and twisted his feelings about women—involved being 3 years old and sexually molested by a babysitter while his single mother toiled all day at a laundry. According to his autobiography, the babysitter forced him to perform oral sex.
“I remember more vividly the moist, odorous darkness and the bristle-like hairs tickling my face,” he wrote, “and most vividly I can remember my panic, when in the wild moment of her climax, she would savagely jerk my head tighter into the hairy maw.”
According to Gifford: “The event deeply scarred Beck—as his hateful language suggests—and he later attributed his anxious and violent relationships with the women he pimped to this incident.”
The third seminal episode—after his mother’s 1922 marriage to a devoutly churchgoing community leader and successful businessman, Henry Upshaw, whom Beck loved as his only real father—was her reckless decision to leave Upshaw after nine happy, stable years for a charming but violent street hustler. Relocating from Chicago to Milwaukee with his mother and her boyfriend, Beck fell into bad company in the red-light district and became “street poisoned,” as he put it in his memoir. (Beck ultimately took the surname of his mother’s third husband, Ural Beck, a hardworking railroad employee in Milwaukee, whom she married in the early 1940s.)
“At the height of his career,” Gifford writes, “he would intentionally draw upon his traumatic memories—especially of the babysitter, as well as his mother’s betrayal during his teenage years—to fuel his cruel treatment of his prostitutes,” using a wire hanger as his preferred instrument of discipline.
By his teenage years, Beck was already burnishing a reputation for criminal mischief and precocious, often predatory, sexual behavior in Milwaukee’s segregated Bronzeville neighborhood—a place of both rat-infested tenements and lavishly appointed jazz clubs. Paying zero attention to his schoolwork and making barely average scores on various IQ tests (a compelling indictment of the accuracy of such exams, for Beck was obviously highly intelligent), he studied the dark arts of scamming and conning, and was irresistibly drawn to the pimp life.
“We lived across the street from a ‘ho house,” he recalled. “I’d sit in my room and watch the pimps, in silk shirts and yellow toothpick shoes, come to get their money with satchels. Damn! I’d get excited when they’d pack their hoes into Duesenbergs, Lincolns, and Caddies and cruise away on joy rides. I ached to be a pimp.”
Not that Beck lacked for opportunities to go legit. In 1936, through the persuasive networking talents of his mother, he was awarded admission to the Tuskegee Institute, a historic black college in Alabama, where she hoped he would pursue a law degree. Instead he flamed out after a single academic quarter, either formally expelled or asked to leave (Gifford says the records are murky) after being caught in a variety of misdeeds, including gambling, bootlegging and seducing young women.
Years later, Beck acknowledged regret over his unfortunate career choice: “It haunts me now,” he told an interviewer. “Of course, I could have become a criminal lawyer. But it was too late. I was already street poisioned. And I wanted that thrill, that voluptuous sensation of controlling a stable of women.”
He set out to learn the trade secrets of pimpdom, persuading seasoned practitioners that he was a worthy protégé with whom to share the mysteries of the “pimp book,” the unwritten code that governed the profession—which involved playing on the insecurities of vulnerable young women who were beaten down by poverty and could imagine no other way of earning a decent living.
Beck “discovered that whores need and use the flashy front, notoriety and phony glamour of pimps to get a sense of personal importance and worth,” he wrote in his memoir. The pimp “doesn’t try to keep a stable of whores happy, either. He can’t even keep himself happy. What he does is keep them conned, confused, bamboozled and fascinated so that they will continue to hump his pockets fat with greenbacks.”
Beck’s life in the game alternated between cash-rich self-indulgence (including addictions to heroin and cocaine) and the unimaginably appalling conditions of his years in various jails and prisons, where he managed to read deeply from the works of Freud and Jung, which enabled him to concoct various psychological and environmental theories that relieved him of moral agency for his bad—in some cases, evil—actions.
He quit being a pimp in 1962 after his fifth and final stint in the joint, wed Betty Mae Shew, a young white woman he picked up at a Los Angeles hamburger stand, started an exterminating business, and eventually, with Betty’s encouragement and assistance, reinvented himself as a writer.
Increasingly vocal about racial injustice—especially the incidents of police brutality against black people that still occur today—Beck published an essay collection and became a mesmerizing lecturer on politics and philosophy, occasionally appeared on television, recorded a rap-like record album, and spent his last decade with his second wife, another white woman named Diane Millman—who ended up falling in love with him after sending him a fan letter.
As he lay dying in April 1992 at the Brotman Medical Center in West L.A., he watched news reports of the exploding riots in South Central—a collective rage in the black community against the acquittal of the white cops who savagely beat Rodney King. “It looks,” he mused from his hospital bed, “like the revolution is starting.”