The Chronicle Review

The Ex-Pimp Who Remade Black Culture

John D. Kisch, Separate Cinema Archive, Getty Images

Robert (Iceberg Slim) Beck, 1972
July 24, 2015

My search for the story of Robert (Iceberg Slim) Beck — the pimp turned African-American writer of bestselling paperbacks — began long before I knew his name. I grew up in a white working-class area of Seattle back in the days before Microsoft and Starbucks changed everything. My father was an exterminator. Starting at the age of 5, I went with him to the job. We’d squeeze in crawl spaces to annihilate colonies of carpenter ants and replace dry-rotted beams. My dad was also a Vietnam vet, and he suffered from severe PTSD. The smell of the rich, moist dirt under the houses often gave him flashbacks. He threw hammers, broke lights. He screamed into the darkness he himself had made. After work on those days, I went out on long, solitary runs, listening to N.W.A. and Nirvana until the batteries of my Walkman gave out. Grunge and gangsta rap provided the soundtrack for survival during my teenage years. The music’s lyricism and rage helped me handle my violent and traumatic world.

It would be decades before I realized Iceberg Slim had been speaking to me the whole time through that music. Although transmitted on a lower frequency, his distinctive voice runs through American culture, if you just know how to listen.

Born in Chicago as Robert Lee Moppins Jr. (he changed the name several times as he gained criminal notoriety, and adopted "Beck" when he left the pimp life) to young newlyweds from Tennessee at the end of World War I, Beck died in a Los Angeles hospital on the second day of the Rodney King riots. At the time of his death in 1992, his books had sold six million copies, making him one of America’s bestselling black authors.

His autobiography, Pimp: The Story of My Life, first published in 1967, is one of the most controversial pieces of American literature, a gritty, mostly true account of Beck’s childhood, criminal life, and incarceration. Pimp evokes a vivid picture of black America’s urban underworld from the Great Depression to the turbulent 1960s. Although it thematically resembles Malcolm X’s autobiography or Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, it is a book unlike the others. Outlining the unwritten codes and customs of pimping in the 20th century, it is composed in black street slang so deep that there is a glossary in the back to translate words like "mudkicker" (prostitute), "crumb crusher" (baby), and "Hog" (Cadillac).

Understanding Beck’s literature adds to our knowledge of contemporary black culture; it is the ghost in the machine.

Published with a third-tier press, Pimp received no reviews or publicity. Not to be found in mainstream bookstores, it was sold in liquor stores, barbershops, and at newsstands. Over the years, it became the cornerstone of an underground renaissance of black arts and literature, including blaxploitation film, black comedy, hip-hop music — a foundation of contemporary black popular culture.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of black authors have written their own stories of criminal life following Iceberg Slim’s lead, thereby creating the popular genre of street literature. Dave Chappelle and Katt Williams both cite Beck as a key influence on their comedy, while Chris Rock hands out copies of Pimp at the wrap of every movie. The Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z, and Snoop Dogg have all credited Beck with influencing their music, while gangsta rap pioneers Ice-T and Ice Cube crafted their monikers and personas after him. Understanding Beck’s literature adds to our knowledge of contemporary black culture; it is the ghost in the machine.

In college, I began studying literature and developed an adventurous obsession with books. One summer, I hitchhiked from Seattle to Lowell, Mass., to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave. I slept illegally in a tent in Harvard Yard to lay my head where W.E.B. Du Bois had once walked to class. I even tried to swim across Thoreau’s Walden Pond one cool August evening and almost drowned. After graduation, I entered a master’s program in the humanities at the University of Chicago. It was here, on Beck’s old stomping grounds of the South Side, that I finally heard his name.

I lived in an old hotel on 61st and Drexel, just two blocks from where he had pimped 40 years earlier. Back in those days — the era of Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, and the Chicago Black Renaissance — Beck had been a neighborhood legend. He had hung out at the famous Palm Tavern on 47th Street and had associated with some of the most notorious black gangsters in the city, including the infamous Albert "Baby" Bell and the Jones Brothers, reputedly the richest black men in the world. Beck bragged that during those years, he had controlled at least five working girls at a time, purchased a new Cadillac every year, and snorted a steady supply of cocaine.

My life in Chicago was divided between two separate worlds. In the mornings, I took courses from such towering intellectuals as Homi Bhabha and Toni Morrison. In the afternoons, I worked for the Chicago Public Schools/University of Chicago Internet Project — a nonprofit venture designed to put computers into underprivileged schools. Every day, I rode my bike to schools all over the South Side. One afternoon a student in the computer lab asked me what I studied at the university. I told him proudly — and a bit arrogantly — that I read the classics of African-American literature: Zora Neale Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison. He produced a dog-eared copy of Pimp.

The gold cover had "Pimp" emblazoned in purple letters across the front and a hand-drawn silhouette of a man’s hardened face underneath. The opening lines read: "Dawn was breaking as the big Hog scooted through the streets. My five whores were chattering like drunk magpies. I smelled the stink that only a street whore has after a long, busy night." Pimp reminded me of a Harlequin-style romance novel or an old pulp magazine. I had no idea that it had been repressed by academics and other purveyors of "good taste" and "literary merit."

There are many reasons why. Pimp is the centerpiece of a literary movement that is geographically and culturally separate from the academic landscape. While colleges like the University of Chicago are often bordered by ghetto neighborhoods, they rarely have any meaningful exchange with the other communities. Further, although Beck’s works are firmly anti-pimping, their harsh representations of women are out of step with the feminist politics of contemporary black writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Not least, Pimp’s graphic descriptions of sex and violence, its poor editing, and lurid packaging suggest that it is trashy, disposable literature — not worthy of serious study.

When I first came across the book, I handed it back to my student, vaguely aware that I was missing something important. Five years went by before I rediscovered Beck’s writing.

As a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Virginia, I came to New York City in 2003 to track down out-of-print copies of old detective novels by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Chester Himes for my dissertation. While walking down 125th Street in Harlem, I stumbled across a book table out in front of the Apollo Theater. It was piled high with paperbacks that had garish, blaxploitation-style covers and exaggerated drawings of pimps, gangsters, and prostitutes. I was fascinated by titles like Whoreson, Black Gangster, Trick Baby, The Jones Men, Ghetto Sketches, and The Scene. I had also never heard of any of their writers: Donald Goines, Nathan Heard, Vern E. Smith, Clarence Cooper Jr., and Odie Hawkins. There, among the other paperbacks, was Pimp.

Over the next few years, I spent all my spare time and money tracking down rare and out-of-print copies of Beck’s novels, as well as books by other black writers in the same genre. In 10 years, I collected nearly 1,000 books and magazines. In the process, I put together the story of how Beck and dozens of other ex-cons, pimps, and drug dealers teamed up with some shifty white Hollywood publishers to create a whole genre of popular black literature during the 1960s and 1970s.

Following the Watts riots of 1965, Ralph Weinstock and Bentley Morriss, at Holloway House Publishing Company, got an idea to publish cheap paperbacks for the growing market of urban African-Americans. "We didn’t do it to emancipate a community," Morriss once told me. "We did it because we felt it was economically viable." Holloway House combed the Watts Writers Workshop, a group that supported local black writing and theater from 1965 to 1973, and put out ads in the black newspaper The Sentinel. After the fledgling company sold a million copies of Pimp in the first few years, it switched from selling Hollywood biographies and sexploitation romps to becoming the self-proclaimed "World’s Largest Publisher of Black Experience Paperback Books."

Holloway House went on to publish more than 400 books in the "black experience" genre. In Joe Nazel’s Iceman series, a Harlem pimp moves to the Nevada desert to create a black-owned Las Vegas and fight crime with his stable of kung-fu trained prostitutes. In Kent Smith’s speculative thriller, Future X, black freedom fighters send a man back into the past from the year 2073 to save Malcolm X from assassination. And in Goines’s Kenyatta quartet, underground revolutionaries murder white racist cops and upper-echelon drug suppliers in the hopes of cleaning up ghettos across the country.

Although running the gamut from the realistic to the fantastical, the Holloway House books gave popular expression to black working-class voices not yet represented in literature. Reflecting their authors’ populist literary politics, they were intentionally written for audiences with an eighth-grade education, and they dealt directly with the pressing issues — white racism, police brutality, incarceration, poverty — that have plagued black urban communities for the past century.

Black street fiction was a significant influence on the blaxploitation urban films that exploded on the American scene in 1971 with Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It grossed $10 million, making it the most profitable independent film to that point, and spawned dozens of imitators, including Shaft, Slaughter, and Cleopatra Jones. Beck’s second book, Trick Baby, was made into another lucrative blaxploitation film in 1972. His literary influence can be felt in movies like Super Fly and The Mack, as Hollywood screenwriters often shamelessly stole his characters, plots, and street lingo.

Beck and other ex-cons, pimps, and dealers teamed up with shifty white Hollywood publishers to create a whole genre of popular black literature.

But while blaxploitation film was at the center of controversy for perpetuating stereotypes of African-Americans as criminals, street literature was too far underground to attract the attention of the NAACP or religious organizations. It never crossed over into the mainstream. Without reviews or access to conventional distribution channels, the black street fiction that was inspired by Beck gained a quiet, but loyal following of prisoners, military personnel, street hustlers, artists, and everyday African-Americans.

It was partly because this literature was off the beaten path that Holloway House was able to get away with the ruthless exploitation of its authors. Before she passed away in 2013, Wanda Coleman, known as the "Los Angeles poet laureate," who had once been a Holloway House editor, detailed the working conditions at the company, including the owners’ racist disregard for their black authors. It paid its novelists paltry sums of money (sometimes as little as $750 per book), seized creative control from black editors who were deemed "too political," and encouraged writers to steal material from hustlers and criminals on the street, she told me.

When Goines — Holloway House’s bestselling author after Beck — was found murdered in 1974, Coleman concluded that such practices had helped get him killed. Goines hid his identity behind the pseudonym Al Clark. "Whoever killed him took pictures of him holding his novel and they sent them to Bentley," Coleman said. "These people were letting Holloway House know that they were not stupid, and furthermore, they could read through the text to see the writer beneath it. I had warned Morriss and Weinstock that what they were doing was dangerous."

Beck’s own journey from pimp to writer at Holloway House was one that reflected the limited opportunities for black men during Jim Crow. Although a promising student as a child with a particular talent for spelling, by his early teens Beck had become "street poisoned," as he called it. He ran the streets of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville and was arrested half a dozen times for a variety of offenses like larceny and immoral conduct. He attended Booker T. Washington’s venerable Tuskegee Institute around the same time Ralph Ellison did, though Beck was expelled for bootlegging liquor.

When he returned to Milwaukee in 1936, he began pimping at the age of 18. It was a dubious career that he would pursue for the next 25 years. For his many crimes — including a botched jewelry heist, pandering, and armed robbery, Beck was incarcerated five times. His psychiatric records from places like the Wisconsin State Prison reveal that penitentiaries were just as racist as other institutions during the period: "His personality makeup is typically negroid, he is irresponsible, superficial, flighty, to a degree rather silly, and despite his intelligence poorly receptive of the necessity for conformity with normal social standard," Beck’s doctor wrote in his Mental Examination.

That "normal social standard" was often equivalent to a white social standard. Beck turned to fellow hustlers while behind bars to refine his understanding of pimping and, imprisoned for years at a time, read voraciously to improve his facility with his game — Sigmund Freud, Oscar Wilde, and George du Maurier were among his favorites. Beck had a photographic memory, and he would eventually draw upon his vast knowledge of literature and pimping to create his autobiography and novels.

In 1947 he was incarcerated at the Chicago House of Correction, a notoriously filthy prison that was famous for working prisoners to death in its labor camp. Fresh from a recent bit at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, Beck couldn’t handle the conditions and made a daring escape by climbing over the 20-foot wall one night. He would remain a fugitive for the next 14 years, until he was recaptured by the police. Over the course of those 14 years, Beck pimped his way across America, practicing his trade in Seattle, Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles. He met his first common-law wife, Mattie "No Thumbs Helen" Maupins, a pickpocket and prostitute who possibly got her nickname for nearly severing a man’s thumb in a knife fight, and together they traveled across the Midwest trimming marks and suckers. Mattie was eventually incarcerated for murder, and Beck continued his pimping career until he was arrested in 1961 for his prison escape. He served 10 months in solitary confinement, and after nearly going mad in his 7-by-3-foot cell, decided to quit the pimp game forever. He moved to Los Angeles in 1962 to be with his ailing mother, and it was there he began his new career as an author.

I came into a wealth of materials — FBI records, police files, rare interviews, book contracts — when I formed a friendship with Ice-T’s longtime manager, Jorge Hinojosa, who had collected a mountain of research for his 2012 documentary Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp. It was through Jorge that I learned Beck had collaborated with his second common-law wife, Betty — a white woman from Texas — in the publication of his books. During the height of his fame, he wrote out his novels longhand, and then he and Betty performed the dialogue for their young children as a form of domestic theater.

The person who gave me the most help in delving into a biography of Beck was his widow, Diane Millman Beck. They married in 1982, a few years after Beck’s relationship with Betty ended. Struggling with diabetes and other health issues, he mostly stayed secluded in his tiny studio apartment on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles. He was working on two final books that he never published, Night Train to Sugar Hill and Shetani’s Sister.

Mike Tyson visited Beck often during those final years. Despite Tyson’s public image as a thug, he was an avid reader, and he loved Pimp. During his celebrity as heavyweight champion, he used to go to Beck for advice on money, women, and literature. Beck provided Tyson with the father figure he had never had, and in return, got the satisfaction of mentoring one of the most famous and feared black men in the world. After his divorce from Robin Givens and his highly publicized rape trial, Tyson admitted in his own autobiography that he regretted not having listened to Beck more. "I wish I would have met him before I married Robin. He would have set my ass straight," Tyson wrote.

When I met Diane Beck in 2004, it was under the strangest of circumstances. She had put all of her husband’s pimp suits, silk shirts, and snakeskin shoes up for auction on eBay to raise money for charity. I had been searching for rare books on the auction site when I came across the clothes and bought every velour suit and pair of alligator loafers I could afford; afterward, I contacted Diane and she graciously agreed to see me. She told me how she used to drive Beck around the city to greet his adoring fans in his 1948 Lincoln Continental, the last relic of his days as a successful author. She discussed in depth his enduring love of the Black Panthers: When Los Angeles was lit on fire during the 1992 riots, he believed he was witnessing the beginnings of the black revolution. And she recounted his final brave moments, when he refused to let the doctors cut off a leg that had gone gangrenous.

I have gone to visit Diane nearly every summer since that first meeting. Each trip, she has grown more generous, giving me photos, legal papers, Beck’s unpublished writings, and rare artifacts. She has told some stories so personal about him that she has sworn me to secrecy.

On my last trip, Diane gave me the greatest gift: a copy of Beck’s final unpublished manuscript, Shetani’s Sister. Completed in 1983, the book had been sitting in a drawer for more than 30 years. Beck had buried it there rather than let his unscrupulous publishers at Holloway House get it. Part pimp autobiography and part hard-boiled detective novel, it represents his final attempt both to cross into the mainstream book market and to dismantle the glorious pimp image he had been criticizing in all of his works by showing how that lifestyle led to drug addiction, prison, and death.

This is a world as dark and lyrical as any Beck had ever created, a "sidewalk parade" where "half naked hookers, square pushovers, and sissies clogged the streets and bars. Sex, crime, booze, and dope ruled the treacherous night. The melded odors of bargain colognes and steamy armpits rode the sweltering air like a sour aphrodisiac for gawking male bangers." Chapter by chapter, the book alternates between the perspective of the pimp and that of the detective who is trying to catch him, until their outlooks collide in spectacular and violent ways at the end of the novel. Shetani’s Sister is in many ways Beck’s most mature work of fiction, anticipating the television series The Wire and other postmodern detective stories that feature multiple points of view. Now it is being published by a trade press, the first time a new Beck book has been made available in 17 years.

Beck told the history of 20th-century America from the dark margins of society. The story of our prison system, illegal sex trades, and mean streets is not a pretty one, but he made it unforgettable. His books inspired the creation of a shadow canon that is indispensable to any conversation about African-American literature, contemporary popular culture, and especially the messy relationships among race, class, and gender politics. His headstone in Los Angeles reads: "Iceberg Slim — Truth, still shining down."

Justin Gifford is an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada at Reno. His most recent book is Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, which will be published next month by Doubleday in conjunction with the novel Shetani’s Sister, by Iceberg Slim.