Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim

Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim

Justin Gifford

Language: English

Pages: 288

ISBN: 0385538340

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


The first and definitive biography of one of America's bestselling, notorious, and influential writers of the twentieth century: Iceberg Slim, né Robert Beck, author of the multimillion-copy memoir Pimp and such equally popular novels as Trick Baby and Mama Black Widow. From a career as a, yes, ruthless pimp in the '40s and '50s, Iceberg Slim refashioned himself as the first and still the greatest of "street lit" masters, whose vivid books have made him an icon to such rappers as Ice-T, Jay-Z, and Snoop Dogg and a presiding spirit of "blaxploitation" culture. You can't understand contemporary black (and even American) culture without reckoning with Iceberg Slim and his many acolytes and imitators.

Literature professor Justin Gifford has been researching the life and work of Robert Beck for a decade, culminating in Street Poison, a colorful and compassionate biography of one of the most complicated figures in twentieth-century literature. Drawing on a wealth of archival material—including FBI files, prison records, and interviews with Beck, his wife, and his daughters—Gifford explores the sexual trauma and racial violence Beck endured that led to his reinvention as Iceberg Slim, one of America's most infamous pimps of the 1940s and '50s. From pimping to penning his profoundly influential confessional autobiography, Pimp, to his involvement in radical politics, Gifford's biography illuminates the life and works of one of American literature's most unique renegades.

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pimp’s actual suits, silk shirts, and alligator shoes. I researched further and discovered that his widow, Diane Beck, was selling all of his clothes to raise money for a children’s charity. I followed these auctions for days, and at the last minute I swooped in and bought two matching velvet suits, a flannel suit, a red silk shirt, and four pairs of dress shoes. After the auction, I contacted Mrs. Beck and asked her if I could come interview her in Los Angeles. She agreed, and we met at a

collected by numbers runners, who took wagers in pool halls, taverns, or in alleys hidden from public view. Three numbers were then picked at random from the wheel, a drum-shaped receptacle. A customer had to hit all three numbers to win, which was nearly impossible, as the odds against this were 456,456 to 1. However, the game offered the opportunity for a bettor to turn a bet of a penny into five dollars, which could feed a family of four for a month. It therefore earned the name “policy,” as

own right in Detroit’s Paradise Valley in the 1950s, and he looked to Beck as his literary mentor. After reading Beck in prison in 1970, he went on to write sixteen books for Holloway House in the next four years, before unknown assailants murdered him and his girlfriend in front of their children. Mr. Allen was gracious enough to provide me with Goines’s book contracts, his unpublished writings, and his personal correspondence, thus enlarging my understanding of the literary landscape in which

done to Weeping Shorty back in Milwaukee. He had a friend lock him in a room, and he slowly reduced the dose over a few weeks. It was the worst feeling Beck ever experienced, but he finally kicked the habit. “I tell you, if you have ever had the flu real bad, just multiply the misery, the aching torture by a thousand. That’s what it’s like to kick a habit.”66 He had blown down to three women, and he housed them in various bordellos, including one in Montana. Although the madam took 50 percent off

important church in their neighborhood. They threw dinner parties, and their pastor, Reverend S. J. Howard, was a regular guest in their home. Beck’s father, Robert Sr., was born in 1897 just two months after Mary and grew up in Tullahoma, a railroad town in south-central Tennessee that once served as the headquarters for the Confederate Army. Records are incomplete and often dubious, but it appears that Robert moved to Nashville in his teens, perhaps by way of Buffalo, New York. He became a

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