Born Robert Lee Moppins Jr. on August 4, 1918, and later known as Robert Beck, Iceberg Slim’s spent his formative years in Milwaukee. While his mother worked as a beautician, the youngster spent many afternoons admiring the various black pimps and whores sauntering in and out of her shop. At a time when blacks wielded no influence, pimps had fat bankrolls, dressed like cartoon kings, and drove Duesenbergs. Slim yearned for his own stable of foxy whores. By his teen years he’d embarked on a life of petty theft and rape, served time in reformatories, and ran with notorious characters with names like Albert “Baby” Bell, and Joe “Party Time” Evans. Slim listened and learned.
In 1941, barely 23 but thoroughly poisoned by the streets, Slim landed in Chicago with the intention of being a top pimp. Though he was occasionally overwhelmed by older whores who were simply too vicious for him, he was soon one of the reigning pimps in the city.
Pimping was his calling. Even later, when he was nearly 70 and had long retired from the street to pursue his writing career, there were rumors that he was still pimping on the side. He always dressed the part, showing up for events and interviews dressed like he was still in the game, favoring loud shirts and “an electric pink suit that looked like aluminum foil.” Betty Mae Shew, a kindhearted Texas woman who became Slim’s common law wife, not only helped type his manuscripts, but also created his civilian pimp wardrobe, including the cloth mask and goggles he wore on the old Joe Pyne show to maintain his sense of mystery.
Gifford, an associate professor of English literature at the University of Nevada, has written previous books on black pulp writers and African American crime fiction. He researched the hell out of Slim, and sharply portrays Slim’s mercurial nature. Slim was a milk drinker who went to bed early, yet he was also a junkie. He spent more than two decades manipulating women, yet, he felt awkward on his first date with Betty Mae. His career defining debut memoir, Pimp: The Story of My Life, came about because he’d grown too old for the game and needed some income. It was the long suffering Betty Mae who convinced him to sell the gory tales of his past to a publisher. An avid reader and autodidact, the aging pimp pursued writing with the same fervor that helped him master the pimp life. There’s a joyous scene in Street Poison where advance copies of his first book arrive in the mail, inciting Betty Mae to dance around their tiny home in celebration. When the money started to come in, Slim bought a 1948 Lincoln, a Great Dane named Leana, and a mink coat for Betty. Once a pimp…
Undoubtedly, Iceberg Slim had some impact as a writer. One of his books, Trick Baby, was turned into a movie during Hollywood’s Blaxploitation era. Slim was soon in demand as a lecturer, and even recorded a spoken word album backed by the Red Holloway Quartet, which supposedly influenced a future generation of hip-hop artists. Still, it’s difficult to tell if Gifford exaggerates Slim’s influence, because the author loves hyperbole. Not only does he resort to gross exaggeration when he describes the Trick Baby movie as “a major blockbuster film,” but he claims Slim’s writing brought on “cataclysmic change.” That’s a mighty bold statement about an author whose books were sold in barbershops.
What’s admirable is that Slim managed to be a success in two different careers. Most people barely make it in one field, never mind two. Slim’s reputation was such that Tyson used to visit him back in the 1980s and ask for advice about women (we all know how that worked out). But just as quickly as Tyson fell from grace, so did Slim. He was constantly at odds with his publisher, an outfit called Holloway House. (They went from publishing biographies of Jayne Mansfield, to pornography, to black authors, in that order, which says a lot.) Slim decided he’d rather not publish under Holloway’s banner than risk being ripped off. Suddenly, unable to attract other publishers, he was broke. His womanizing cost him the love of Betty Mae, who sold the mink coat and split. Though he found another woman to marry, Slim lived his final years in L.A., an isolated and sickly man peering out of his bedroom window with binoculars. He continued to write, though, long, ultraviolent crime fantasias that Gifford reckons are some of Slim’s best work. Iceberg Slim was, in the end, a writer. So he wrote. Even as old age pummeled him, he wrote.
Gifford covers a lot of ground, but he’s too smitten by Iceberg Slim’s rendition of life on the streets, where black men taunted each other with vulgar poems, killed each other, went to prison or went crazy, while black whores became heroin addicts and wielded enormous knives. Everyone in Slim’s world seems a hiccup away from homicide. Or suicide. When Gifford isn't feverishly recounting Slim's morbid past, he's telling readers about the struggle of blacks in America. How many times does he tell us that blacks were mistreated and had difficulty finding jobs? I lost count.
Of course, some of the historical stuff is interesting. Did you know that Chicago had such a big rat problem in 1940 that the city destroyed 30 tons of vermin in a citywide anti-rat campaign? I also liked learning about Slim’s first common law wife, a tough gal named “No Thumbs Helen” who eventually was locked away for murder. Yet, Gifford comes off as the sort of green academic who is fascinated by the gloomier aspects of the poor. Gifford is correct when he praises Slim for chronicling “new and original visions of black underworlds that few have seen and lived to write about.” Yet, Gifford seems to relish these tales of poverty and lowdown sex the way Bob Ripley collected shrunken heads.
Gifford’s insistence that Iceberg Slim was a genius is tough to digest. Gifford uses examples of Slim’s prose to impress us, but they sound cumbersome and purple. Slim was not a great writer. He was a hardworking, intelligent guy who came along just as Holloway House was willing to take a chance on an unproven black author. As for pimping, Gifford depicts Slim as a kind of master psychologist, which is another hard sell, since the success of a pimp relies on the simple knowledge that people are oversexed and stupid.
Even so, Iceberg Slim remains a fascinating character. Maybe he’s not, as Gifford pleads, “One of the most influential renegades of the twentieth century,” but he was one of a kind. Dig? He’d probably be amused that a white professor has written his biography, though it’s hard to forget Slim’s quote about Chicago’s South Side. “The only white men I saw,” said Slim, “were white men riding in cars looking for black pussy.”
- Don Stradley