Thursday, February 4, 2010
The Next Hustle
How ex-pimp Robert Beck transformed into writer Iceberg Slim,introducing a new genre for literature, film and music
By Mark Skillz
Robert Beck was forty-seven years old when he started writing a brutal book called Pimp. On one hand, it was an ode to his former profession, but on the other…it was all he had.
In twelve years, Beck wrote seven books, which vividly captured the inner world of the street hustler. His stories made him a star. But then in the eighties, he dropped out of sight, right when his name had taken on mythical proportions in the hood. Pictures of his face and real biographical information were as hard to find as Osama Bin Laden. In his absence, folklore took precedence over fact.
Before the author died in 1992, he had sold more than six million books in four different languages and inspired two generations of rappers, poets, actors and writers. Yet, very few people know the true story behind the making of his classic memoir.
For Those That Remember
Robert Beck was enigmatic, hard to figure out; clever, vain, anti-social and elusive. He was a gentleman pimp and con man, who educated himself in four penitentiaries. When he wasn’t incarcerated, he was holed up in hotel rooms hiding from the law. But don’t get it twisted, he wrote about what he knew about – and a lot of it was first hand.
According to Betty Beck (his common law wife of the 60’s and 70’s) and Misty (their youngest daughter) he was a man who had clearly “saw and experienced a lot” in his life. Betty, the mother of his three stunningly beautiful daughters: Camille, Melody and Misty (who has been featured three times in Jet Magazine as the Beauty of the Week) assisted Bob with his Holloway House titles: Pimp, Trick Baby, Mama Black Widow, Naked Soul, Long White Con, Airtight Willie and Me and Death Wish. Though Betty and Bob were never legally married, to this day, she still uses the last name Beck. To her dying day, her fondest memory will be the day she met a striking looking man with a mysterious past.
The Dapper Predator
This story starts in 1961 when a then twenty-six year old Betty Shue moved to Los Angeles, California from Austin, Texas. Though raised by redneck parents in a time of strict segregation, Betty dug soul food and Jimmy Witherspoon records.
It was at a hamburger stand in Lemert Park, where she soon caught the eye of an enigmatic stranger. The man – tall, slim and charming, was impeccably dressed, Betty recalled how “uncomfortable” he made her feel, “he was just sitting there looking at me”, she said between coughs. “But there was one thing that I knew for sure,” she states “and that was that he sure in the hell wasn’t from around there.”
That’s because according to Betty’s recollection the man was “elegant and refined” and looked like he could’ve been the president of a bank or a doctor. After a couple of weeks the mysterious man simply introduced himself to her as “Bob” and asked if he could take her someplace where they could eat something “other than hamburgers.”
“Are you gonna take me someplace where I can eat soul food and listen to some gut bucket blues?” she asked him, to which he answered, “Sure, my dear.”
When he picked her up that night he handed her an expensive black and gold dress to wear for the evening. Betty was instantly swept off of her feet by this mysterious man who not only correctly guessed her dress size, but also drove an impeccably clean old Chrysler with a record player in the back seat of the car.
At the time, Bob was sharing an apartment with his sick mother Mary Brown Beck and her caretaker Cookie. Mary was dying of heart disease. Deeply religious and proud she had serious concerns about her only son Bob. Day and night out loud, she prayed for his salvation. Betty remembers Mary constantly chastising him: “Bobby, you need to repent! Repent for all that you’ve done.”
“Mama, I will mama, I promise mama, I’ve changed you’ll see!” he swore and swore, but Mary didn’t believe him. One night from behind a closed door Betty overheard Mary warn him, “Bobby, don’t you take this pretty girl and put her on the street!”
At the time naïve country girl, Betty had no idea what Mary was talking about.
At the height of their courtship, Bob and Betty had been virtually inseparable for weeks. And then one night while Bob was away Mary and Cookie cornered Betty. “If you know what’s good for you, you better get away from him”, they warned her. Dumbfounded Betty asked why. “What has he told you about himself?” they pressed her, for which she had no answer. The two women looked at each other with knowing looks and said, “Girl, you better get a hint.”
Before she died, Mary gave Betty a final warning: “Don’t you trust him.”
Later that night when Bob returned Betty couldn’t contain herself. “You know Bob, we’ve talked a lot about me and nothing about you,” she said as she confronted him, “I’ve known you all this time and I don’t know a single thing about you. Tell me about yourself.”
“Where would you like for me to start at?” he responded.
“I dunno start from the beginning.”
“Tell you what; I’ll start at the end.”
Pausing Bob then took a seat and started his confession. “I was just released from prison over a year ago where I did ten months in solitary confinement at the Cook County House of Corrections.”
Betty says at that moment that her jaw hit the floor.
“I was captured on an old fugitive warrant because I escaped from prison thirteen years before.”
In a state of shock Betty’s head was spinning, because she believed her boyfriend – this “refined and elegant gentleman,” to have been a professional of some sort. Speechless she somehow managed to ask him, “What did you do to get locked up?”
“The original charge was robbery”, he said. “But I’m no thief. Stick ups, muggings and things like that weren’t really what I did.”
“Then what did you do?”
“I was a pimp.”
The Big Windy
Robert Lee Maupin, Jr. was born on August 4th 1918 in Chicago, Ill. From his own accounts and based on prison records he grew up in Rockford, IL and Milwaukee WI. where he would first be enraptured by street life. But it is the city of Chicago that he would be closely associated with for much of his criminal life.
Upon being released from prison in 1960 Maupin changed his last name to Beck, in honor of his stepfather William Beck. Like many American cities, Chicago is undergoing a transformation. The run-down tenement buildings and rat-infested sky-high projects are being replaced with townhouses, condominiums and stores with names like Bed, Bath and Beyond.
The streets of Chi-Town that Beck – calling himself Cavanaugh Slim, stalked some fifty and sixty years ago are long gone. But make no mistake; many of the landmarks are still there: 63rd and Cottage Grove, State Street and many other places are still physically there. But the street players, the hustlers, the gamblers, the crooked cops, the bars, the after hours spots, the Policy Kings, the whore houses, the drug dealers, the dope addicts, the neighborhood heroes and zeroes of that time are all gone. Many of the physical buildings are still standing, but, in many cases, they have been abandoned for so long that barely anyone remembers who owned them or what businesses were there. The nightspots and the people that bought life, laughter and sorrow to them are nothing more now than faded pictures in cracked frames stored in attics and basements.
But back in the good old days when Chicago was called “The Big Windy” if you were Black and drove a brand new Cadillac it meant one of four things: either you were a gangster, a numbers operator, a drug dealer or a notorious trafficker of flesh, translation: a pimp. In the ghettoes back then, nobody outshined a pimp.
Processed hair, pencil-thin moustaches, diamond rings, zoot suits, Stacy Adams shoes and flashy clothes told the story of how sharp a hustler’s game was. But what spoke just as loud as a player’s threads (that’s what clothes were called back then) and his hog (as Cadillac’s were called back then too) was his name, your name had to say something about you. If a hustler’s game was especially slick he might have a moniker like “Charlie Golden” or “Cadillac Sonny.”
On the cold and treacherous streets of “The Big Windy” in June of 1942 is where Bobby Maupin, sometimes using the alias Bobby Lancaster, would learn his craft. For twenty-three years, Slim hustled on the streets of Milwaukee, Indiana, Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit. These cities would later provide the backdrop for his books. Wherever there was a ho stroll or a whorehouse was where he sent his stable of girls to work.
In the minds of most people, the name Iceberg Slim is associated with images of the 1970’s Blaxploitation flick Super Fly or the Huggy Bear character from the TV show Starsky and Hutch. What they fail to realize is that Slim is from another era. His was the generation of “jive”, be-bop, “boogie woogie” music and a dance called the “Lindy hop”. Their icons were Billy Eckstine, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Billie Holiday and Louis Jordan. Their culture thrived in spite of racial segregation and some of the worse racism in American history.
That night back in the apartment Betty’s head spun like a top. Part of her didn’t want to believe what Bob told her. But she knew it was true.
Every night Bob would tell her the most fascinating stories about crooked cops and pimps, Murphy men and hookers, stick up men and drug addicts, con men and queers, cum freaks and tricks, Italian gangsters and pickpockets. She couldn’t wait for him to get home so that she could hear more. It wasn’t just the subjects that held her captivated it was also the language he used while narrating events. “Bob was the smartest man I have ever met in my life,” she says, “he had the widest vocabulary of anyone I have ever known.”
One of the first people Bob told Betty about was his mentor a notorious pimp – and killer, named “Baby” Bell. Born Albert Bell in Omaha, Nebraska in 1899, Bell – a gambler at the time, migrated to the Windy City sometime in 1930 from Minnesota. It is then that he caught the attention of the infamous Jones Brothers, an organization which ran vice in Black Chicago.
In the book, Pimp the character of Sweet Jones is based on Bell. Although Bob exaggerated Bell’s features – making him a huge black skinned giant, when he was really short, fat and light-skinned, Beck made no exaggerations at all about Bell’s infamy.
According to newspaper clippings from the Chicago Defender, Baby Bell was a psychopath who had a penchant for murder. On June 4th 1943 Bell shot and killed a good friend in cold blood. The Black press and the Black community were enraged as popular attorney Euclid L Taylor (the Johnnie Cochrane of his time) got him acquitted.
“How could it be”, wrote one incensed Defender reader, “that a man commits a crime and goes free without justice being served upon him.” That was because according to the Defender, approximately “thirty to forty people” witnessed Bell leave the balcony of his apartment on 124 East Garfield Blvd. and shoot Preston Ray five times – the last shot going through his throat.
Popular Chicago Defender columnist Henry Brown described Bell as “a blustering, swaggering braggart”, who ruled the underworld. Others described him as “despicable” and “savage.”
For whatever reason, Bob revered Bell so much that he even named his children after him: Robin Bell and Bellissa Beck.
According to Beck’s friend Lamar Hoke, Jr., Baby Bell was a “boss player” (as those in the life would say). “Here was a black man in the 1930’s mind you,” Hoke told me on the phone, “that had a stable of Oriental hoe’s that used to chauffer him around in his Duesenberg. He had a white ocelot that wore a diamond on its collar and had a long gold chain for a leash. He lived in an exclusively white area at a time when Black people didn’t do that kind of thing. He was politically connected downtown. He was virtually untouchable.”
Indeed Bell was invulnerable back then, according to the book Kings: The True Story of Chicago’s Policy Kings and Numbers Racketeers by Nathan Thompson, along with being a pimp, Bell was an enforcer for the Jones Brothers.
One night Betty approached Bob with a thought: “You know, if you put all of these stories in a book…people would buy it.” But Bob dismissed the idea.
To Betty’s way of thinking, she says that she doubted if any white people had ever heard stories about the world that Bob was from and that a great many of them would find it interesting.
And she was right.
Black literature at the time was the domain of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes, their books appealed to liberal Whites and intellectuals Blacks. At that time there hadn’t been any books that truly captured the inner struggles of the Black underworld. But Bob neither believed in himself or in the strength of his story.
The Pimp the Professor and the Start of a Classic
In 1967, Robert Beck was a forty-nine year old ex-offender with a rap sheet dating back to 1932. He had a growing family to feed but had no marketable skills or education. This presented a major problem.
In his 1944 Leavenworth prison record, he told the review board that the only legitimate work he had ever done was as an entertainer as well as a “tap dancer and a magician.”
Beck, who was sentenced there for violating the Mann Act, denied any involvement in or knowledge of pimping – his real occupation. When asked about other types of work he had done, Beck comically told the staff that he had been a door-to-door salesman. “And what product did you sell, sir?” they asked him. “Ladies hosieries", he responded – more than likely with a slight smile on his face.
But Bob didn’t fool them one bit. The prison psychiatrist notated on his record: “Inmate will more than likely offend again. He is a menace to society and a confirmed pimp.”
Years later out in the real world – and his former profession behind him, the only work that Bob could find was, ironically, as a door-to-door salesman. “He used to con people into thinking that they had roaches and that they needed to buy his bug spray, to get rid of them”, laughs Betty.
One day while out working he met a man whom Bob would later only refer to as “the Professor.” The Professor – who Betty confirms for me was a white man, was a writer who was interested in authoring a book about Bob’s life. Bob and Betty had been infrequently working on chapters for their own book, but because of Bob’s lack of confidence, they didn’t seriously pursue it. Betty’s fear was that the Professor was going to steal their idea and they wouldn’t ever see a dime for it.
After weeks of the Professors double talk Bob ditched him. At the time, the couple was struggling to make ends meet. Bob was at a crossroads. He didn’t want to return to his old life, which – he made plenty of money at, but he also described as being “miserable” and “lonely.”
But he also couldn’t see how writing a book could solve his problems. Throwing caution to the wind he scraped together seventy-five bucks and bought Betty a typewriter, with the understanding that: He’d write his stories if she’d type and organize them. Together they delicately balanced their growing family with writing his memoirs.
The Pimp Chronicles
In the history of African American, literature there had never been anything like Pimp. It was decades before the 1999 documentaries Pimp’s Up Hoes Down and American Pimp. And it definitely preceded the blockbuster films The Mack and Willie Dynamite by at least six years. It could be successfully argued that the blaxploitation genre itself was in part inspired by the runaway success of the book Pimp.
From the opening sequence to the very end, Beck narrated his life story in graphic visuals depicting a world where hustlers snort and bang (inject) cocaine, smoke gangster (weed) and ride the white horse of heroin to the zenith of ecstasy – and good doses of wild sex and violence are thrown in, too.
In detail Beck – holding nothing back, discussed his mastery of burying his foot in a bitches ass, while maintaining what he called an “icy front.”
The story starts with a three year-old Beck being sexually molested by his babysitter Maude and ends with his release forty years later from the Cook County House of Corrections after wasting his life as a pimp and a con man. In between, he discusses a life that is devoid of love and warmth and full of regret. Chapter after chapter, Beck – with the brutal cruelty of Sadaam Hussein, beats his prostitutes as they plead for mercy through teary eyes. But to him their screams are seen as nothing more than mere bullshit.
Ironically, many of the people who knew Beck later in life would describe him as a “total loner” and a man who “vigilantly protected his emotions.”
Nowhere in the book does he talk about where or when he first started writing. Although, he discussed attending Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute for a short period of time (where he studied agriculture), he gave no hint as to his first efforts at writing.
According to Betty, “The first thing he ever wrote was Pimp.” This is strange, because Bob’s prose was a little more polished than your average off-the-corner-wanna-be-writer. “As the sun butchered nights head with a golden axe.” Is one of many examples of his uncanny mastery of metaphors.
But it’s something Betty told me about Bob’s writing habits that strikes me as peculiar. For instance: Bob liked to write on the edge of newspapers, napkins, toilet tissue, a tissue box and once to Betty’s dismay, “that mother fucker wrote in circles on a paper plate.”
It’s even odder when you consider that Betty always made sure that Bob had plenty of notepads and pens in his immediate surroundings. Dr. Peter Muckley, whose book The Life As An Art, which is the first book to discuss Beck’s work at length, had been told that, “Bob used to stare at the ceiling for hours at a time sketching out story scenes in his head. A technique he called “writing on the ceiling.”
This isn’t exactly unusual for a writer. But note, they didn’t say that he stared at the wall or the floor, but the ceiling. According to Bob’s memoirs, he was a voracious reader who spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. Stands a chance he first started writing in prison. After all, where else would one get a habit like staring at the ceiling for hours at a time and then writing down notes and stories on anything they could say like: toilet tissue, napkins and paper plates?
Before he started his book, he made two promises to himself: no glamorizing his former life and no snitching. According to friend and former Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy, “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 err um “employees”: Mary, Eloise, Liz, Mattie and Maybelle became Phyllis ‘the runt’, Stacy, Kim, Joann, Chris, “No Thumbs” Helen and Rachel.
But then he went a step further and gave himself a nom de plumme.
“This character has to be cold,” he told Betty.
“Cold from top to bottom.”
“Like an iceberg?” she asked him.
“Yeah, that’s it, like an iceberg…cold from top to bottom.”
Thus, the hustler who was once called Cavanaugh Slim was re-born: Iceberg Slim.
Adult Themed Titles and the Black Experience
“Black writers needed! Publisher will pay you for your stories.” Read the ad in the Sentinel Newspaper. Betty was floored. This was the break they were looking for.
According to Betty’s recollection, Bob doubted that anything would come of it.
The company Holloway House Publishing is located at 8060 Melrose Avenue. This small publisher in a non descript building would eventually become home to some of the greatest black fiction writers ever. Today, when calling the offices of Holloway House one is immediately thrown off guard, the phone is answered very simply and professionally with a pleasant, “8060”. If you’re not sure where your calling you might hang up fearing that you dialed the wrong number.
Holloway House CEO Bentley Morris sounds like a man who could’ve replaced Bob Barker on the Price is Right. However, on second thought with his big booming bass voice, perfect elocution and salesman persona, he would’ve been a perfect candidate for Monty Hall’s Let’s Make A Deal.
According to the ad in the paper, the company was looking for manuscripts by African American writers. They were looking for books that really captured “the Black experience.” As far as Black authors went at the time Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Claude McKay were the toast of the literary scene. However, this publishing house was looking for something different.
“We were looking for writers who were talking about their own experiences. We didn’t want to get anything about their trips abroad or anything like that; we wanted the Black experience as only a member of the black community could deliver it.” Bentley Morris said.
While dropping the manuscript off Bob accidentally left his sunglasses behind. Editor Milton Van Sickle was immediately struck by the title: “Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim.” Van Sickle read the first few pages and was instantly hooked. He urged his bosses Ralph Weinstock and Bentley Morris to buy it. They approved. But they had no way to contact the writer as he left no info.
“We were knocked out by what we read,” recalls Morris, “[The editor] was very impressed he liked his style, he liked the intensity, the legitimacy of what the author was writing about. He came to us and got the ok to continue negotiating with him.” The editor, Milton Van Sickle, was excited about the prospect of publishing such a provocative piece of work. The company had been no stranger to controversy; they had previously published “adult themed” titles and an explosive work called The Trial of Adolph Eichmann.
The next day Bob returned for his sunglasses. They have them, they said. Van Sickle came into the waiting area and introduced himself …Bob’s life was about to change in ways his deepest insecurities wouldn’t allow him to imagine.
Bentley Morris will never forget the day he met Bob Beck.
“He was charming and meticulous about his dress.” Morris remembered. “From the crease in his trousers to the scarf around his neck, there wasn’t a hair out of place – he was a charming guy, he was a man you’d like to sit and talk with for hours.”
What no one in the small publishing house knew was how this well-mannered, articulate and charismatic gentleman would change the course of their company.
The Cultural Impact of Pimp
According to Morris, the book Pimp wasn’t exactly a bestseller out of the gate. The New York Times and every other literary critic refused to write a review “rave or otherwise.” Critics reportedly disliked the title but mostly – and probably more importantly, were totally turned off by the language.
Pages and pages of the book Pimp contained slang words that the average White American (and a whole lot of Black folks as well) had never heard before.
Some smart person at Holloway House had the insight to insert a short dictionary in the back of the book. For the longest time in Black literature, Bob’s book of slang was a constant reference source – not today though, because phrases like “hog” (car), “wire” (info), “short” (car) and “boot” (a Black person, a phrase I definitely wouldn’t recommend using while referring to or in conversation with an African American, or you yourself might get pimp slapped) are terms from four generations ago. However certain terms are still in use: busted (arrested), cat (female sex organ), cut loose (to refuse to help) and roller (cops).
Undeterred by that pack of snobby New York critics Beck did what any hustler worth his Stacy Adams would do: promote the book himself. Turns out Bob loved self-promotion. Word spread to local talk show host Joe Piney about a new book taking LA by storm. Piney contacted Holloway House to set up an interview with the author.
According to Betty, initially, Bob was ashamed of his previous life, because he went on the Joe Piney Show wearing a “brown paper bag over his head, with holes cut out in the front of it for his mouth and eyes.”
Nevertheless, it was at this point that Pimp found its audience. Bob was delighted but scared. People in the ghettoes of Los Angeles were fascinated with his work. No one had ever read anything like it before. There was a growing audience that couldn’t relate to books about the civil rights movement or slavery; they wanted to read stories about life in the ghetto as only one of their own could tell.
To young readers in the hood, “Pimp had that raw, street feel to it, it was real gritty”, says Dr. Todd Boyd, an accomplished author and USC professor of cinema, who has in his book collection an autographed copy of Pimp, which he calls “cherished property.” Dr. Boyd remembers how the book Pimp, “was able to bring attention to a lifestyle that a lot of people weren’t aware of back then. Pretty much any house in the hood had a copy of Pimp lying around.”
Between 1967 and 1979, Beck wrote seven books that captured the brutally hard world of the ghetto. Moreover, he did it in a way like no writer of his time had done. He told stories of pimps, hookers, drug dealers, con men and gamblers in frightening detail. It was the first time that anyone had accurately captured the inner struggles of ghetto dwellers in the language of the street.
However, in his time and to this very day his work is dismissed as “trash” in both Black and White literary circles. There were three major forces at play impeding Beck’s acceptance into mainstream America: “The Black Power Movement” the “Women’s Liberation Movement” and those snobby New York literary critics. Thanks to them it was a done deal: the book Pimp got no love.
Of the women’s lib movement, he would later tell a reporter from the Los Angeles Free Press that it was a “minimal irritant.” With titles like Pimp, Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow, Slim wouldn’t have had a hooker’s chance in a monastery to have made it into Oprah’s Book of the Month Club. Slim was a hustler who exploited women – helping them to raise their self-esteem and empower them was not part of the pimp doctrine.
However, his rejection by the Black Power Movement was painful. In the late 60’s and early 70’s black militants didn’t take kindly to interracial relationships. Due to his former profession and white common law wife, the Black Panthers wanted nothing to do with Beck. But it was because of the huge popularity of books like Pimp, Manchild in the Promised Land, Soul On Ice and the Autobiography of Malcolm X that readers, according to Dr. Boyd “started to gravitate toward stories of downtrodden people in the inner city.”
Pimp made its impact at the same that the Black Power Movement was starting.
The Legacy and the Disciples
In the back streets of Black America, Beck’s books were selling faster than a twenty-dollar hookers’ car date. It was then that you started to see more writers of the Iceberg Slim mode. One of them was a young man who also hailed from the Midwest, and like Beck, he too, had been a hustler. His name was Donald Goines.
“Let me tell you something”, Morris, says to me excitedly, “Donald Goines loved Bob Beck. They were from the same streets. He came in my office and many times, he’d tell me how much he loved Bob Beck’s work. He looked at Beck as his own personal God.”
Betty recalls Bob respecting Goines’ work on one hand, but also eyeing him with some suspicion as many of their books told the same stories. According to Dr. Boyd, “Clearly, Donald Goines was popular in the hood. People in the hood know Goines’ body of work, but Donald Goines never transcended the hood like Iceberg did.”
It was the collective efforts of Goines, Slim, Odie Hawkins and Joe Nazel that gave rise to a genre called the “Black experience novel”. The authors told riveting tales of life in the hood in the aftermath of the 60’s riots, Vietnam and the introduction of heroin in the Black community. Due to the success of their novels, a new generation would later find their voices.
In 1970, incarcerated Bay Area pimp, Robert Poole was so riveted by Beck’s work that he too was inspired to write. On toilet paper, Poole wrote a screen treatment about his life entitled ‘The Mack and his Pack.” The film would later become a major Hollywood blockbuster The Mack starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor.
“I was first inspired to write after reading Goines’ Dopefiend while in federal prison.” Author Vickie Stringer told me via email. “It was such an authentic read, that it made me feel unashamed of my own path to prison.” Today, Stringer is not only a best selling author but is also CEO of her own imprint Triple Crown Publications.
Stringer along with Sista Souljah, Darren Coleman, Terry Woods and many others are front-runners in a new genre called “gangsta lit”. This genre’s stories are set on the streets of twenty-first century America and tells tales of drug infested streets in the ‘keeping it real’ age of hip-hop’s gangsta influenced, materialistic culture. And like a lot of today’s gangsta inspired music even Stringer admits that, “Gangsta lit is like rap music, whereas, you have some people rapping about what they've experienced and what they’ve heard second hand. Goines and Slim were very authentic and they bore their soul to us.”
Of the two writers, Goines was far more prolific than Beck. Goines wrote sixteen books, in six years, four of which were under the pseudonym Al C Clark. Because of Goines’ subject matter and output, it was soon rumored that Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines were the same person. Things got even more confusing when Goines died in 1974 and Beck stopped writing a few years later. Rumors soon spread that Beck had died sometime in the early seventies as well.
“How did Bob handle being a successful writer?” I asked Betty. “I know what you’re asking me”, she said in a solemn tone. “Sometimes he would lay in his bed all day looking up at the ceiling and he would ask me, ‘Do you really think we can do it again?” Sometimes he would be quite proud of himself and other times…it mystified him. He never imagined his life going in that direction.”
Bob’s last years on Earth weren’t happy. He had diabetes, a failing liver and was blind in one eye. Due to his many ailments, Bob became a recluse. In 2005, the Beck family (Melody, Misty, Camille and widow Dianne Millman Beck) filed suit against Holloway House for back royalties. In their suit, they state that Robert Beck died penniless.
Upon hearing that the man who has been called ‘one of the best selling African American writers ever’ died broke, I asked Bentley Morris: “So, how did this man who sold some six million books die broke in a one room apartment in South Central?”
“I don’t know”, Morris, said to me.
“By your own account you’ve said that he sold six million books, they say when he died he had nothing, how did that happen?”
Rather matter of factly Morris responded: “I don’t know what he had in his bank account. When Bob came around here, he never gave any indication of living in poverty or anything like that. He drove a Lincoln he was always well dressed. We paid him his royalties. When Bob would come to the office in the later years – no, we weren’t as close as we had been, but he was always professional, we were cordial with Bob. We treated him very genteelly. Sir, you’re talking about someone I really liked and had an enormous amount of respect for.”
According to the lawsuit: “Beck and Holloway signed an agreement for Holloway to publish Beck’s first novel with the first right of refusal for his second work along with perpetual worldwide copyrights.”
Basically, Holloway House used the same agreement for each of Beck’s books. As smart as he was, Bob was never represented by an attorney or a literary agent because according to the suit, “Beck didn’t understand the legal terms of the initial agreement and relied on Holloway’s expertise, and agreed to whatever royalties Holloway offered to pay him.”
According to his youngest daughter Misty, herself a talented writer who’s published two books of poetry ‘Waves of My Emotions and Pimp Poetry (Iceberg Slim’s life told in rhyme) “My father’s last royalty check was for $638.” Which barely covered Bob’s $500 a month rent and dialysis treatments, for which Misty says her father “would beg Bentley to pay for.”
“My father died not knowing how popular he still was”, Misty told me. “Bentley had him thinking that no one was buying his books anymore. My dad died a pauper. You should’ve seen how he lived. He lived in the heart of gang territory in a one-room apartment with barely running water and leaky pipes. It was horrible.”
On April 30th 1992 Robert Lee Maupin Beck died from liver failure.
Sadly, due to the Rodney King riots that engulfed Los Angeles that week, the world wouldn’t know about the passing of Iceberg Slim until many weeks later. Even sadder was the fact that the man who inspired a movement died virtually uncelebrated.
According to his daughter Misty, “there were maybe thirteen people” at his funeral, actors Jim Brown and Leon Isaac Kennedy were among the few who came out to pay their last respects. The man who wrote so poignantly about the lonely misery of “the life” died a lonely death.
For more information check out the upcoming Ice T and Jorge Hinojosa produced documentary: “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of A Pimp”
Special thanks to Betty and Misty Beck for sharing their memories with me. And also Bentley Morris, Fab 5 Freddy, Dr. Peter Muckley, Dr. Todd Boyd, Lamar Hoke, Nathan Thompson, Faisal Ahmed, Vickie Stringer, attorney Brian Corber and the staff at Waupun State Prison and Leavenworth.
This article is dedicated to the memories of Betty Mae and Camille Mary Beck.
All Rights Reserved Copyright 2009. No part of this article may be reproduced anywhere in any form without the express permission of the author.
Article first published in Wax Poetics issue 38 December 2009