Iceberg Slim


Robert Beck, born Robert Lee Maupin, (1918 – 1992), better known as Iceberg Slim, was an American pimp who subsequently became an influential author among a primarily African-American readership.

Scottish author Irvine Welsh said ‘Iceberg Slim did for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and thief and William Burroughs did for the junkie: he articulated the thoughts and feelings of someone who had been there. The big difference is that they were white.’

Born in Chicago, Maupin spent his childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Rockford, Illinois, until he returned to Chicago. When his mother was abandoned by his father, she established a beauty shop and worked as a domestic to support both of them in Milwaukee. In his autobiography, Maupin expressed gratitude to his mother for not abandoning him as well. She earned enough money working in her salon to give her son the privileges of a middle-class life such as a college education, which at that time was difficult for the average person.

Slim attended Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, but having spent time in the ‘street culture,’ he soon began bootlegging and was expelled as a result. After his expulsion, his mother encouraged him to become a criminal lawyer so that he could make a legitimate living while continuing to work with the street people he was so fond of, but Maupin, seeing the pimps bringing women into his mother’s beauty salon, was far more attracted to the model of money and control over women that pimping provided.

According to his memoir, ‘Pimp,’ Slim started pimping at 18 and continued until age 42. The book claims that during his career he had over 400 women, both black and white, working for him. He said he was known for his frosty temperament and for staying calm in emergencies, which combined with his slim build to earn him the street name Iceberg Slim. When verbal instruction and psychological manipulation failed to keep the women compliant, he beat them with wire hangers; in his autobiography he concedes he was a ruthless, vicious man.

Slim had been connected with several other popular pimps, one of them Albert ‘Baby’ Bell, a man born in 1899 who had been pimping for decades and had a Duesenberg and a bejeweled pet ocelot. Another pimp, who had gotten Slim hooked on cocaine, went by the name of ‘Satin’ and was a major drug figure in the eastern part of the country. Throughout his pimping career, Slim was noted for being able to effectively conceal his emotions, something he said he learned from Baby Bell: ‘A pimp has gotta know his whores, but not let them know him; he’s gotta be god all the way.’

In 1961, after serving 10 months of solitary confinement in a Cook County jail, Maupin decided he was too old for a life of pimping and was unable to compete with younger, more ruthless pimps. In an interview with the ‘Washington Post,’ he said he retired ‘because I was old. I did not want to be teased, tormented, and brutalized by young whores.’ Maupin moved to Los Angeles and changed his name to Robert Beck, taking the last name of the man his mother was married to at the time.

He met Betty Shue, who became his common-law wife and the mother of his three daughters, while he was working as an insecticide salesman. Betty encouraged Beck to write the story of his life as a novel, and they began sporadically writing some draft chapters. According to her, a white writer, whom Beck would later only refer to as ‘the Professor,’ became interested in writing Beck’s life story; Beck became convinced that the man was trying to steal their idea for himself, so they cut him out of the deal and finished it without him. Bentley Morris of Holloway House recognized the merit of ‘Pimp,’ and it was published in 1967.

The hip-hop writer Mark Skillz wrote that when Beck began work on ‘Pimp,’ ‘he made two promises to himself: no glamorizing his former life and no snitching.’ Hip hop artist Fab 5 Freddy, a friend of Beck’s, claimed that ‘Many of Bob’s friends were still alive when he wrote that book. So he changed all of their names and descriptions. ‘Baby’ Bell became ‘Sweet’ Jones, his best friend ‘Satin’ became ‘Glass Top,’ and he created composite characters of some of his former ’employees.”

Reviews of ‘Pimp’ were mixed. Although ‘he found his book being shelved next to other black authors of the angry 60’s like Eldridge Cleaver’s ‘Soul on Ice’ and Malcolm X’s ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’ Beck’s vision was considerably bleaker than most other black writers of the time. His work tended to be based on his personal experiences in the criminal underworld and revealed a world of seemingly bottomless brutality and viciousness. His was the first insider look into the world of black pimps, to be followed by a half-dozen pimp memoirs by other writers.’

In 1973, Hollie West questioned in ‘The Washington Post’ whether societal changes and the women’s movement would soon render the outlook expressed in ‘Pimp’ obsolete: ‘The Iceberg Slim of yesteryear is considered an anachronism to the young dudes now out there on the block trying to hustle. They say he is crude and violent, overlooking his tremendous gift of the gab. Iceberg acknowledges that pimping has changed because ‘women have changed.’ The advent of women’s lib, changing sexual mores, general affluence in this society and widespread use of drugs by pimps to control prostitutes have made an impact.’

‘Pimp’ sold very well, mainly among black audiences. By 1973, it had been reprinted 19 times and had sold nearly 2 million copies. It was eventually translated into German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and Greek. Following ‘Pimp,’ Beck wrote several more novels, an autobiography, and a story collection. He sold over six million books before his death in 1992, making him one of the best-selling African-American writers.

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