Cool as Iceberg
A University of Nevada, Reno professor reveals the tip of Iceberg Slim, author of the hardboiled autobiography Pimp
For the lid, we’re talking about a felt Kangol fedora— something in a Muppet green or a purple leopard print to go with the suit jacket. For a feather? The operative word is “plumage.” A bouquet of large iridescent quills from a variety of endangered Japanese storks, condors, three-toed jacamars and maybe a hyacinth macaw or two, all tucked into the side band and starched back, as stock-still as a bitch-slapped haberdasher.
From fros to toes, a true alpha male pimp takes longer to get dressed and ready to go out than it takes all of his hos combined.
The two-tone feather boa is green and white but it goes with everything because it’s made of money. Literally. A hand-sewn three-ply boa, six-feet-long, made of dollar bills stitched together. Hard currency, but pillowy-soft to the touch.
One end of the custom snakewood pimp stick is the gearshift of a 1959 Chevy Impala. The other end hides a telescopic bayonet, spring-loaded with 200 lbs per square inch of compact pressure.
The fur? Nothing sweeter than butter-fed South American chinchilla.
For the cape, a simple crushed-velvet number layered with cashmere and Mongolian musk ox.
Of course, we’re rocking the gold fronts, iced-out with a 4-carat, old-school trillion cut diamond from Jacob the Jeweler with dangling platinum rims.
And don’t forget the pimp cup to hold all of that pimp juice.
In modern pop culture, pimps have become the clown princes of the street hustle. The word “pimp” is now used by pre-teen girls to describe cool-looking tank-tops.
What the hell happened?
Justin Gifford, assistant professor of American Literature at the University of Nevada, Reno, has a pretty good handle on the history of the pimp game. He’s one of the few university professors in the country to specialize in gritty African-American crime-fiction novels. He’s currently working on the first academic book about Robert Beck, the man better known as Iceberg Slim.
Gifford traces the history back to the Depression and the prestigious Tuskegee Institute.
By a synchronicity that gathers more and more significance and meaning through time, celebrated author and Harlem Renaissance man Ralph Ellison attended the school at the same time as Robert Beck. There’s no record to indicate that the two ever talked, let alone discussed their literary aspirations, but history tells us that Ellison soon left for New York and in 1952 would write the National Book Award-winning novel The Invisible Man.
Beck, meanwhile, was kicked out of school in his sophomore year for bootlegging moonshine.
Ellison became a celebrated novelist among the literati, eventually becoming an institution of black history—required reading for folks of every race as they move up the rungs of higher education.
Beck went back home to Chicago in 1936 and spent the next few decades becoming a master pimp.
Rapper/actor and former flesh peddler Ice-T’s nom de guerre is an outright tribute to the super cool Slim. Ice-T’s manager, Jorge Hinojosa, is in the midst of producing and directing a documentary about the late writer.
“They’re interviewing [Slim’s] widow, Betty Beck, who is the mother of two of his children, Misty and Camille Beck,” says Gifford. “In addition to that, they’re interviewing black entertainers like Snoop Dogg. And they’re interviewing me. I’m really the only academic out there who specializes in this field.”
The field includes hundreds of writers, from the Slim-imitator Donald Goines to Sister Souljah, all of whom—inspired by the success of Slim’s autobiographical Pimp: The Story of My Life, which has sold somewhere between 6 and 7 million copies—started what is called “Black Crime Fiction.” Gifford has what he believes is the largest-known collection of books in this genre.
While still a grad student at the University of Virginia, Gifford had purchased some of Iceberg Slim’s clothes from ex-wife Diane Beck. Mrs. Beck was talking to Ice-T for the biopic and mentioned the name of this white kid, now a university professor, who sat down and talked with her for hours about her ex-husband, a guy who knew what he was talking about and who was now doing heavy-duty academic research on the genre.
“Back in 2004, Diane Beck was selling some of [Slim’s] clothes to donate to a children’s charity—one of Iceberg Slim’s favorite charities,” says Gifford. The clothes were immaculate.
“Hand-tailored Dorman Winthrop, brown and blue velvet suits, rider-cut … a gentlemen’s look,” he says. “They were very aristocratic.”
They were unlike the flamboyant ghetto-clown duds pimps would prance around in during 1970s blaxploitation films like Superfly and Shaft.
“They were entirely tasteful and reserved and regal, in a sense,” says Gifford, who also bought a couple pairs of Slim’s shoes. They were lizard and alligator skin, dark brown and neon blue.
“‘Meticulous’ comes back in every interview I do about Iceberg Slim,” says Gifford. “It’s about rigorous self-presentation, the cornerstone being this meticulous execution.”
It’s all in Slim’s writing.
“The style and his writing are both highly structured and well-put together to convey a certain kind of complex narrative,” says Gifford. “Slim said that his transition from pimping to writing was an easy one. The principle is the same.”
You’re out for a logical, entertaining, painful exposition.
Pimp: The Story of My Life, according to Gifford, was responsible for putting the publisher Holloway House and street fiction on the map. While Ellison toured universities collecting honorary tenures and certificates as a “culturally uplifting, trans-racial black man,” Slim was in and out of prison, sometimes escaping, sometimes serving his entire term, all the time pimping and using drugs.
The invisible book
Finally, in 1961, after his fifth major stint in prison, Slim went straight. He was too old and too tired of the pimping game. He got a job selling insecticide door-to-door. He wrote in his spare time and dropped off the manuscript for Pimp at Holloway House.
The guys at Holloway House knew they had something good. The book would become a “manual” for guys like Ice-T: “He talks a lot about how any problem he’d have, he’d go to Iceberg Slim and Pimp,” says Gifford. “Later in life, it became a manual of here’s what not to do … people realized that it wasn’t a guide for how to hustle … it was a guide for writing as the way out.”
While Pimp was an easy sell to the public, it was a hard sell to the powers that be.
Holloway House started out publishing pulp. With Pimp, Holloway House actually tried to buy ad space in the New York Times. The Times refused based on the title and “the material.” So they had Slim go to local universities and talk to some classes, but the book really started to blow up in “liquor stores, barber shops, bowling alleys in black communities,” says Gifford. “There was a huge underground movement. The book sold most through mom and pop grocery stores. People set up book tables in Harlem and sold copies of Pimp.”
Ralph Ellison was “an invisible man,” but Iceberg Slim outsold him with “an invisible book.” Pimp moved largely unnoticed by the white community, though Hollywood caught on and gave us the blaxploitation versions of the pimp game in the 1970s.
Forty years after the book was written, the word “pimp” has been “evacuated of all its gender violence,” according to Gifford. “If you understand what the word really means, it’s horrifying to think these young girls think that if something is ‘pimp’ it means ‘stylish.’”