Robert Beck, aka Iceberg Slim, in terms of his impact on shaping our global cultural landscape, is probably now as essential reading as William Shakespeare.
—Scottish novelist Irvine Walsh
As looters torched businesses across South Los Angeles in late April of 1992, a 73-year-old man lay on his deathbed in Culver City’s Brotman Medical Center across town. In a sense it was appropriate timing for the man, officially listed as Robert Beck, to leave this life, as he’d been born a few months prior to another historic ethnic insurrection, the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, under the name Robert Lee Moppins (or Maupin) Jr.
In the interim, he had adopted various personas during the course of his life as a dutiful son of the Black middle class, indifferent college student, wayward delinquent, and peddler of human flesh under the moniker Cavanaugh Slim. In his most famous iteration, he eventually became a writer of crime fiction under a pen name the world became familiar with—Iceberg Slim.
While literature professor Justin Gifford’s passion for African American ‘pulp’ literature was previously covered in Our Weekly, (10-24-13), in his second book, “Street Poison,” he mounts a biography of the foremost author of the genre, Beck.
Beck or ‘Slim’ blamed his wayward youth on his conflicted relationship with his mother, who bestowed him with creature comforts, but then warped his perspective towards womanhood, when she abandoned his beloved step-father (who provided their stability) for a smooth- tongued gigolo. His psyche permanently twisted, Beck would spend the rest of his life seeking out parental figures of both genders, but unfortunately all of them mentored him in the illicit lifestyle of the Mid-western ghettos that shaped him.
A series of prison sentences provided the epiphany that pimping was not a suitable vocation for a middle-aged man, so in the 1960s he embraced the “square life” completed with the trappings of family responsibility and set out to become a writer.
The result was “Pimp: The Story of My Life.” An instant success, it was followed in turn by titles like “Trick Baby,” “Mama Black Widow,” and “Long White Con,” all of which chronicled the brutality of the inner city underworld.
In an ironic turn of events, the man who exploited hundreds of women in his pandering career was himself taken advantage of by the publishing entity that “pushed” his books. In spite of his selling millions of copies and translations into multiple languages, his later years were marred by financial hardship.
However, this did not impede his worldwide influence. A major inspiration for the Blaxploitation film craze of the 1970s, he’s achieved his greatest acclaim within the hip hop/rap culture, with his work being praised by the likes of Ice Cube and Ice T. Scottish writer Irvine Walsh even acknowledged Beck’s impact on his career and novels like “Trainspotting.” Finally, boxer Mike Tyson, who came to regard Robert Beck as a surrogate father, spent $25,000 to have the destitute writer buried in Glendale’s Forest Lawn mortuary.
“Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim” By Justin Gifford, Doubleday (August 4, 2015). Lists for $26.95 ($14.11 on Amazon).