In April 1962, Robert Beck, who later achieved lasting fame under the pen nameIceberg Slim, was released from the Chicago House of Correction after serving 10 months in solitary confinement in a cell not much bigger than a coffin. A career criminal, Beck had been incarcerated numerous times from age 14, including an 18-month stint in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. He had nearly lost his mind while imprisoned in what he called the “steel casket” in Chicago, and he vowed to change his life upon his release.
Then in his 40s, Beck no longer had the strength or stamina to be a pimp, the vocation that he had pursued with unyielding vigor for more than two decades. Instead, he opted to become a writer. His mission was to chronicle, in fiction and memoir, the sordid world in which he had lived.
By the time he died 30 years later, Beck’s works had sold more than 6 million copies, making him, according to his first publisher, Holloway House, the best-selling African American writer of all time. Beck published five streetwise crime novels during his lifetime, influencing writers such as Donald Goines and Andrew Vachss, but it is his memoir, “Pimp: The Story of My Life,” that has had the most enduring and, for some, the most problematic cultural legacy. (Irvine Welsh, author of “Trainspotting,” said that Iceberg Slim’s works were now “as essential reading as William Shakespeare.”)
Rap music and the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s owe a clear debt to “Pimp.” Ice T, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Jay Z have all paid tribute to Beck’s memoir. The book is lurid and lyrical, a confession wrapped in an account of the societal blight that afflicted America’s black neighborhoods from the Depression to the civil rights era. It simultaneously mythologizes the pimp and dissects him as the product of an unjust society that abuses and exploits its minorities, especially black women.
Writing of the life of a celebrated memoirist can be a daunting and thankless task, but Justin Gifford handles the job with aplomb in his new book, “Street Poison.” A decade’s worth of research allows him frequently to correct the record where “Pimp” and Beck’s other autobiographical writings may have fudged the facts. But Gifford’s greatest achievement is placing Beck’s life within the context of larger social, political and economic changes.
Beck’s parents were part of the Great Migration, moving from Tennessee to Chicago not long before his birth in 1918. They soon divorced and, when Beck was 4, his mother remarried Henry Upshaw, a businessman from Rockford, Ill., who was a good father to the young boy. For a time, Beck knew the comforts of stable middle-class life and even joined the Boy Scouts. With Upshaw’s assistance, his mother started a beauty shop whose clientele included prostitutes, and it was there that Beck first encountered pimps.
“I wanted to become a pimp so that I could have all these beautiful clothes and the diamonds and the women,” Beck later told an interviewer. “You know, groups of women. And that’s how I got street poisoned.”
When his mother left Upshaw for a smooth-talking, abusive hustler from Wisconsin, the young man’s chances of avoiding trouble were all but ruined.
Gifford vividly depicts the underworld where Beck learned and plied his trade: the black ghettos of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee. The narrative is rich in memorable characters, including Albert “Baby” Bell, the notorious criminal strongman who served as Beck’s mentor, and No Thumbs Helen, the gifted pickpocket who became Beck’s first common-law wife. Along the way, Gifford drops in concise histories of con artistry, the U.S. prison system and the illegal numbers game known as Policy. It is a fascinating read.
Yet the book lags in its final third. Beck’s life as a writer is inevitably less compelling than his decades as a pimp. Those later years were not entirely without intrigue. His publisher regularly cheated him out of royalties, to the point where Beck opted to put his last three manuscripts in a drawer rather than share them with Holloway House.
Near the end of his life, he served as a father figure to Mike Tyson, who says he paid $25,000 for the author’s above-ground burial at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif. Gifford also sheds light on the contributions made to the composition of his memoir by his wife, Betty. Nevertheless, these passages lack the verve of the part of Beck’s life that he himself covered in “Pimp.”
One of those tucked-away novels, “Shetani’s Sister,” has just been published. In alternating chapters, the book tells the story of two protagonists on a collision course: a Los Angeles vice squad police officer and Shetani, a master pimp from New York, who hopes to expand his empire to the West Coast. The novel is a solid example of Icebergian crime fiction: tightly structured, erotic and violent. It’s a book for devotees to read and savor, but for those new to this author, there remains only one source for getting to know Iceberg Slim, and that is his imperishable memoir.
Jon Michaud is a novelist and the head librarian at the Center for Fiction.
By Justin Gifford
Doubleday. 265 pp. $26.95
By Iceberg Slim
Vintage Crime. 244 pp. Paperback, $14.95