Awesome Men Throughout History: Iceberg Slim
This week’s Awesome Man Throughout History—author and criminal Iceberg Slim—was a pimp, which is dodgy territory for a men’s magazine. Getting laid is awesome and all, but I’m not here to suggest reverence for the degradation and exploitation of vulnerable women, which is the primary business of a pimp. Iceberg Slim’s books are what introduced a lot of people to the ins and outs of pimping, and they’re not pretty. It’s a savage, cruel, and hollow lifestyle that would have sent Jay Gatsby crying home to his mother.
Slim, born Robert Maupin, grew up in a poor area of Milwaukee and was immediately captivated by the prostitutes who got their nails and hair done at his mother’s beauty salon, and by the pimps who kept them, for lack of better phrasing. “They had these big, beautiful cars and these fabulously sexy broads, sometimes five and six with them,” he recalls in an interview with ANSWER Me!. “And some [pimps] had diamond insets in their teeth, and when they smiled the sun would catch them…and they were so perfectly barbered and just smooth.”
It’s not hard to understand why a smart kid with no money would look up to a community of cool, rich, flashy men who seemed sophisticated and worldly.
So Iceberg became a pimp, mostly in and around Chicago, and earned his nickname from his cold, guarded demeanor. He only retired in his forties after serving an especially miserable prison term, one of several during his life.
He took up writing after that, and turned out to be pretty good at it. His first book, Pimp: The Story of My Life, was a revelation, if a bleak and vicious one, and the Washington Post said that “Iceberg Slim may have done for the pimp what Jean Genet did for the homosexual and thief: articulate the thoughts and feelings of someone who’s been there.”
Pretty sure Iceberg never thought he’d ever be compared to Jean Genet at any point in his life.
Iceberg’s writing is poetic and brutal, and very obviously 1970s in some ways, but his confidence is timeless. He was also, even in his later novels, honest and unromantic about street life; he may not have been necessarily ashamed of pimping, but he wasn’t proud of it, nor was he wallowing in any weird criminal nostalgia. In fact, according to his wife, he had little confidence in his abilities as a writer.
Iceberg Slim became an anti-social, guarded recluse just as his name was being celebrated as a new voice for black writers, and sometimes it’s hard to separate legitimate biography from folklore. Now that he’s dead, we can’t really ask him to clarify anything. But Slim managed to turn what had been a “lonely” and “empty” life as a pimp into some very powerful and important books that helped society understand him, and by extension many others who fell into those same traps.
He also, in a roundabout way, gave us Ice-T and Ice Cube. As far as legacies go, that’s not too shabby.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.