Born into abject poverty, Beck spent most of his childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Rockford, Illinois. His mother worked as a maid and operated a beauty shop. She was exploited by a series of men who drifted in and out of her life. Still, it seems she was able to provide Beck with some semblance of luxury; he once said that his mother helped pave the way for his life as a pimp by pampering him.
He briefly studied at Tuskegee Institute, before dropping out in 1937 (legend has it he and Ralph Ellison were enrolled at the same time) and drifting into criminality. He started to pimp at age 18 in the brutal Chicago underworld, soon becoming rich and successful in the trade. In his writings, he later traced the motive behind and tradition of black pimping to the days when American slaves noticed their white owners' physical attraction to and exploitation of black women. Slim concentrated most of his efforts in the Chicago area, but he worked women throughout the Midwest. He served a total of seven years in jail for various offenses--including time at the Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas, the Cook County House of Corrections, and Waupun State Prison in Wisconsin.
During his second to last incarceration Slim was able to escape. He pimped for 13 more years before he was recaptured in 1960 and placed in solitary confinement at Cook County House of Corrections. It was then that he finally decided to "square up."
In Pimp he wrote, "I got out of it because I was old. I did not want to be teased, tormented and brutalized by young whores." The National Observer's Monroe Anderson quoted him as saying, "I realized I had been stupid. I was elderly and tired. I had the revelation that pimping, after all, was not the most magnificent profession. I had a feeling that I had wasted myself."
On his release from prison Slim retired from street life and moved to Los Angeles, California, where he attempted to reconcile with his mother. He spent a heart-rending six months at her oxygen-tent-covered bedside, where she lay slowly dying of complications from diabetes. Her death was a great blow; it proved to be what he needed to quit heroin, which he did cold turkey, completely and abruptly.
In 1962 he got a job selling insecticide for $7 a week. He had been a natural salesman all of his life. He also met and married a woman named Catherine who was 21 years his junior. By all accounts, though, Slim often seemed and looked half his age. When Sepia's Bob Moore asked how he could marry after having so hard-heartedly exploited the 400 women that he had "managed," Slim replied: "I got married because I found a woman who obviously has a lot of common sense and who understands the kinds of changes that I was going through, and who is highly intelligent and extremely lovable, and who just seems to understand - has a sixth sense about what I had gone through." He also admitted that he needed a little taking care of, that marriage was an important positive step, and that he thought children would be good for him.
For four years Slim sold insecticide. While making a sales pitch to a college professor, he mentioned that he had been a pimp. The professor offered to collaborate with Slim on an autobiography, but after the interviews had been taped, Slim discovered that he would only receive a minimal percentage of the book's royalties. Spurred on by the need to beat the professor before he stole his life story, Slim wrote his own book, Pimp: The Story of My Life, in three months. He insisted that real creativity had not been a factor, that all he had done was remember, but The Nation dismissed this notion, reporting, "There were perception and introspection, ... in the book Beck bares his mind and the pimp psychology to the reader while writing in the argot of the ghetto with descriptions to match."
Bentley Morris of Holloway House publishers in Los Angeles worked with him on publishing all of his novels. Pimp was published in 1967 (though sources vary on this), and was a controversial success. And despite Slim's efforts to dissuade young men from going into "the life," the book reportedly had the opposite effect on some. Most notably Jason Itzler the "King of all Pimps" founder of NY Confidential escort agency.
Slim died of liver failure on April 30, 1992, one day before the 1992 Los Angeles Riots erupted.
Reviews of Pimp were mixed and it was quickly categorized as being typical of the black 'revolutionary' literature then being created, but Beck's vision was considerably bleaker than most other black writers of the time. His work tended to be based on his personal experiences in the criminal underworld, and revealed a world of seemingly bottomless brutality and viciousness. His was the first insider look into the world of black pimps, to be followed by a half-dozen pimp memoirs by other writers. The book sold very well, mainly among black audiences; it was eventually translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, and Greek. The book was largely ignored by white America, and even the venerable Library of Congress does not own a copy.
He wrote seven more novels. As a Guardian obituary put it, "each one of his novels seemed bleaker and more violent than the last".
According to his publisher Holloway House, Beck had sold over six million books as of 1997, making him one of the best-selling African-American writers (after Alex Haley). All his books were published exclusively as paperbacks.
Iceberg Slim also released an album of poetry called Reflections in the early 1970s.
Except for Doom Fox, which is published by Grove Press, all of Iceberg Slim's books are available through Holloway House Publishing Co.
A movie adaptation of Pimp has been planned for a long time. There were announcements of a movie directed by Bill Duke and staring Ice Cube; that project was put on hold. In 2004 rapper Pras acquired the rights to produce a movie based on the book.
Mama Black Widow is in pre-production as of May 2008. It is to be directed by Darren Grant and adapted by Will De Los Santos. It will star Kerry Washington, Anthony Anderson, Rihanna, Mos Def and Macy Gray.
Comedian Dave Chappelle often talks about Iceberg and "The Game" during his stand-up routines. According to him, Iceberg got his name by keeping "ice-cold" in a shoot-out where he stayed at the bar drinking his drink even though a bullet pierced his hat, a story told at the end of chapter 13 in Slim's Pimp. On his 2006-07 summer tour, Chappelle told a tale of Iceberg, learning of him from Maya Angelou, and relates it to why he left $50 million at Comedy Central and secretly went to Africa.
At the conclusion of Chappelle's stand up routine he compares how Slim used to blackmail his hookers and therefore forcing them to stay loyal to him. Chappelle would close his show with the saying, like Slim used to say "Don't ever leave me."