Pimp: The Story of My Life. By Iceberg Slim
Writing by Tony Frame.
Pimp: The Story of My Life will always be one of my favourite books of all time. I first read it in 2000 and I have re-read it at least six times since then. It immersed me (and still does) into a world I had never really seen before with such detail and honesty. I mean, sure, there were documentaries and TV dramas on prostitution and the exploitation of women, but never before was there a story from the pimp’s point of view.
Iceberg Slim’s memoir is exactly that; the story of his life and rise to Pimp stardom in Chicago from the late ’30s onward. It is a fascinating and captivating read, one that is full of haunting imagery and desperation, with moments of glory that are always overshadowed by the protagonist’s chosen profession.
It is not a book for everyone; I’d imagine the majority of women will probably be repulsed by its raw and honest retelling of one man’s desire to be the best pimp that ever walked the earth. Feminists would probably want to burn the book, and to their credit, I wouldn’t blame them. In fairness to Iceberg Slim (born Robert Lee Maupin, later to become known as Robert Beck) the Preface is a confession and a warning as well as an apology of what you are about to read:
‘In this book I will take you the reader with me into the secret inner world of the pimp. The account of my brutality and cunning as a pimp will fill many of you with revulsion, however if one intelligent valuable young man or woman can be saved from the destructive slime then the displeasure I have given will have been outweighed by that individual’s use of his potential in a socially constructive manner.
I regret that it is impossible to recount to you all of my experiences as a pimp. Unfortunately it would require the combined pages of a half-dozen books. Perhaps my remorse for my ghastly life will diminish to the degree that within this one book I have been allowed to purge myself. Perhaps one day I can win respect as a constructive human being. Most of all I wish to become a decent example for my children and for the wonderful woman in the grave, my mother.‘
Iceberg Slim, photographed through the years.
The first page sets the tone for the rest of the book. Slim recounts how he was ‘Georgied’ (sexually assaulted) by his female babysitter when he was just three years old. Later in the book a psychiatrist makes the connection that this experience (along with a betrayal involving his mother) could have been the catalyst that potentially made Slim subconsciously hate women and led to him pursuing the path of becoming a pimp.
Whilst he entertains that notion I still believe that if these incidents did not happen he would have probably still went into a life of crime anyway. Having read the book multiple times I can understand a lot more of that period. When Iceberg Slim turned 18 it was 1936, this was many years before the Civil rights movement and before black people were even considered equals in the white man’s world.
By his own account, Iceberg Slim always felt that the chips were stacked against him; he couldn’t dance or sing or play an instrument, nor was he good at any sports (these were one of the few ways black people could make an honest living and earn relatively good money) and he wasn’t going to spend his life buffing shoes. The allure and glamour of being a Pimp was always in his mind:
I thought, “I was still black in the white man’s world. My hope to be important and admired could be realized even behind this black stockade. It was simple, just pimp my ass off and get a ton of scratch. Everybody in both worlds kissed your ass black and blue if you had flash and front.”
The great thing about the book is the multitude of colourful characters that Slim comes across and the way he describes them. From his early days of starting out he meets another young hustler (much like himself) called Party Time. They come up with a hilarious, yet dangerous scheme (known as the Murphy) where Slim dresses himself up in women’s clothes, to make himself look like a prostitute, and thereby hides himself partially in the shadows at the end of a long dark alleyway.
Party Time would then grab some sucker off the street and tell him about this gorgeous young woman of his that was waiting at the end of the alleyway, that she would be able to ‘oblige’ him for a few dollars. The sucker would pay him and then head down the alleyway towards the silhouetted prostitute waiting for him, unaware that it was Slim in drag. By the time he was half-way down the alleyway both Slim and Party Time would run off and thus the ‘Murphy’ had been played.
‘Around ten that night in an alley in the heart of the vice section, Seventh and Vilet Sts., we unwrapped the package that Party had brought. I rolled up my pants legs beyond my bony knees. I slipped into the twenty-five cent red-cotton dress from the Salvation Army.
I put on the frayed red satin high-heel shoes. I pinned a scraggly piece of hair just inside the front inner band of the faded blue straw bonnet. When I tilted it on my head at a sexy angle, the ringlets of uneven hair hung down over my eyes like bangs.
I stood wide-legged, flexed my thigh and hip muscles against the tight red dress aping the whores stance.
Party looked me over head to toe. I was wondering how I came off as a broad. He shook his head, hunched his shoulders and walked toward the mouth of the alley to catch a sucker.
I got the answer when he reached the pavement. He twisted his head toward me and said, ‘Listen Man, stay outta the light, okay?’
The writing moves at a good pace, with wit and humour throughout, as Slim takes us on the fast track to Chicago where he comes across the greatest Pimp to walk the earth, the larger than life character that is Sweet Jones. The first time we see the illustrious Mr. Jones is like something out of a movie:
‘A gleaming back custom Duesenberg eased into the curb in front of me. The top was down. My peepers did a triple take. A huge stud was sitting in the back seat. He had an ocelot in his lap dozing against his chest. The cat was wearing a stone-studded collar. A gold chain was strung to it. He was sitting between two spectacular high-yellow whores. His diamonds were blazing under the street light. Three gorgeous white whores were in the front seat. He looked exactly like Boris Karloff in ‘Black-face.’
He was rapping something. All five of those whores turned toward him. They were listening and paying attention like he was God giving them a pass to Heaven. He could have been running down a safe place to hide because the world was coming to an end.
I said, “Who is that?”
The dwarf said, “You gotta be outta town. That Sweet Jones. He’s the greatest Nigger pimp in the world.”
What follows is Slim’s journey to getting ‘in’ with Sweet and learning from him on how to be a great pimp. This, as we find out, is easier said than done as Sweet Jones seems borderline psychotic and practically laughs Slim out of the bar when he first introduces himself. Luckily for Slim he comes across the likeable character that is Glass Top – one of the top pimps in Chicago, who takes Slim under his wing and gives him the break he needs.
Being a pimp and being a great pimp are two different things, he learns, and what I found fascinating was the inner-workings of being a pimp and how the succesfull ones carry themselves and how they think and act. There’s a lot to like in this strangely bleak story, with rich detailed descriptions of people and places that remain with you like scenes from a movie.
‘I started the motor and turned the lights on. The snow had stopped falling. My headlights beamed on a squatting junkie whore with a Dracula face peeing in the gutter. She grinned toothlessly into the glare like maybe she was a starlet taking bows at a movie premiere.’
One thing that is prominent throughout the book is Slim’s guilt over the torture he puts his mother through, throughout his life. His first incarceration at aged 17 (when he is sent to the Wisconsin Green Bay Reformatory) haunts him many years later. Even now, when I think about it, the way he describes his mother as she watches as he’s driven away to the reformatory, remains burned into my brain:
‘The van came to get us on a stormy, thunderous morning. As we stepped into the van handcuffed together I saw Mama standing in the icy, driving rain waving good-bye. I could feel a hot throbbing lump at the base of my throat to see her standing there looking so sad and lonesome, cowering beneath the battering rain. I could feel the tears aching to flow, but I couldn’t cry.
Mama never told me how she found out the time the van would come. I still wonder how she found out and what her thoughts were out there in the storm as she watched me start my journey.‘
Images Courtesy of Wikipedia
When I first finished the book I felt a tremendous sense of relief in some regards – it was that gripping, full of harrowing scenes and injustice, white oppression and inequality. There’s a great sense of impending doom that hangs over Iceberg Slim’s head from the outset and I really did empathise with some of the emotions and conflicts he wrote about, especially in the poignant moments regarding his mother and the fact that he never knew if he would ever see her again.
By the mid ’60s the Civil rights movement paved the way for many black artists to release their work to a wider audience. Pimp was first published in 1967 and by 1973 it had been reprinted 19 times and had sold nearly 2 million copies. By the time of his death, Iceberg Slim / Richard Beck, had written several novels and had sold over six million books, making him one of the best-selling African-American writers of all time.
Pimp: The Story of My Life is a book that I will read once again at some point (for what will be the seventh time) and I’ll still be enchanted and shocked by the world it thrusts me into. I haven’t read anything else by the author, and in fairness, I don’t feel the need to, as this could never be topped, as far as I’m concerned.