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Iceberg Slam Dunk

November 08, 1998|Tamar Brott

In 1968, Bentley Morriss found the unsolicited memoirs of a pimp named Robert Beck, a.k.a. Iceberg Slim, on his desk. Though the manuscript was heavy on commas and beatings, Morriss thought it strangely moving. Thirty years later, "Pimp: The Story of My Life" has sold more than 6 million copies and been translated into five languages. Last year, rapper and actor Ice-T wrote the forward for the British edition; Quincy Jones recently optioned the film rights. We spoke to Morriss, currently president of Holloway House Publishing, in his Melrose Avenue offices about the late Robert Beck and the "Pimp" phenomenon.

Q: In the early '60s, you were mostly publishing Hollywood exposes. How did you go from Jayne Mansfield to Iceberg Slim?

A: We'd already had some success with a couple black-authored books, like "The Dorothy Dandridge Autobiography," which the major houses wouldn't have touched. Word got out that we were actively promoting new black writers and that's how Bob found us.

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Q: Was he still a pimp?

A: No, he was working as an exterminator. But he was still very flamboyant.

Q: A ladies' man, perhaps?

A: At the time I think he was married but, let me tell you, when he came in, all the ladies left the switchboard and gathered around. He was a tall, powerfully built, charismatic man with an enormous IQ. Something like 165. If circumstances had been different, he could have been a senator.

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Q: What was the initial reaction to "Pimp"?

A: Extremely negative. The New York Times wouldn't even run our ads. They called the book unacceptable.

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Q: So why did it take off?

A: Bottom line? Bob Beck knew how to tell a story. It's just such an incredible tome, so brutally violent yet so full of his own pain. And, of course, for white people, it was set in a world most hadn't been exposed to. I mean, who knew what a 'hood was then? There was no hood. There was no Tarantino.

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Q: Did other pimps send you their memoirs?

A: Oh, sure. Hundreds. But most just emulated Bob.

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Q: How do you explain its sustained popularity?

A: In the last 10 years, the rappers have rediscovered him. They're always singing about Iceberg. As time goes on, it just speaks to more and more people. Look at the part where Bob's girls leave him for another, younger pimp and he becomes a depressed shell of a man. Isn't that the same as a CEO getting his pink slip? Where does he go now? How does he apply for a job? He wants his money and his perks.

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Q: Is Quincy Jones really going to make the movie?

A: You never know with Hollywood. They're in the mood for "urban" stories right now, but then I've optioned "Pimp" half a dozen times over the years. Even Bob wrote a script. He had a secret desire to play himself in the movie but nobody was ready for that, I guess.

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Q: Who should play Iceberg?

A: Samuel Jackson. No doubt about it.

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