Robert Michael Lipsyte was born January 16, 1938, in New York, New York, the son of Sidney I. and Fanny Lipsyte. He grew up in Rego Park, a neighborhood in Queens. Lipsyte's father was a school principal, his mother a teacher. Young Robert devoted his childhood to books rather than sports. Instead of sharing a game of catch with his father, the two often visited the library.
In the first chapter of his 1975 book SportsWorld, which considers the role of sports in American culture, Lipsyte points out that he did not even attend his first major league baseball game until he was thirteen years old, despite the fact that there were three major league teams in New York: the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers. Lipsyte says he was "profoundly disappointed" with the experience and went to only one more game "as a paying customer." His third major league game was as a sports reporter for the New York Times.
As a boy, Lipsyte did play Chinese handball against the sides of brick buildings and participated in street games such as stickball, but he felt pressured by society to be good at sports. This experience later developed into a major theme in some of Lipsyte's nonfiction works such as SportsWorld and novels like Jock and Jill (1982) and his trilogy beginning with One Fat Summer (1977). The protagonist of One Fat Summer, Bobby Marks, is similar to Lipsyte: Bobby is an adolescent in the 1950s, suffering from a weight problem, who does something about it. In 1952, Lipsyte took a summer job as a lawn boy and lost forty pounds, ridding himself of at least one youthful stigma; Bobby Marks has a similar experience.
Education and Early Work
A Ford Foundation program allowed Lipsyte to skip his senior year at Forest Hills High School in Queens and enroll at Columbia University, from which he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1957 at the age of nineteen. In 1959, Lipsyte received a Master's degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Although he planned to move to California after graduating from Columbia as a nineteen-year-old English major, Lipsyte took a summer job as a copy boy in the sports department of the New York Times. Eventually becoming a sports reporter and then a sports columnist, he stayed with the newspaper for fourteen years. During that time, he co-authored Nigger (1964) with controversial comic and activist Dick Gregory; published The Masculine Mystique (1966); wrote his first and best-known novel, The Contender (1967); and published an edited collection of his columns, Assignment: Sports (1970).
After 1971, Lipsyte worked as a freelance writer, television scriptwriter, journalism professor, radio commentator (National Public Radio, 1976-82), and columnist for the New York Post (1977). He was a television sports essayist for CBS Sunday Morning (1982) and stayed with that network until moving to NBC in 1986. After leaving NBC in 1988, he hosted The Eleventh Hour on PBS (1989), winning an Emmy Award for On-Camera Achievement although the show was canceled after its second season. Returning to the New York Times to write a sports column in 1991, Lipsyte continued freelance writing while beginning a column in 1992 in the magazine American Health.
Lipsyte married Maria Glaser in 1959; they divorced in 1963. In 1966, he married novelist Marjorie Rubin; they had a son, Sam (1968) and a daughter, Susannah (1971). His second marriage ended in 1987. He married television producer Katherine L. Sulkes in 1992.
Lipsyte's novels for young adults have gained considerable critical acclaim for their absence of sentimentality as well as for the excellence of his writing. Lipsyte's characters do not necessarily win an ultimate prize at the end of the novel. They are more likely to go through an admirable change due to effort and personal growth.
Lipsyte has written two sequels to The Contender. In The Brave (1991), protagonist Sonny Bear is a seventeen-year-old half-Indian runaway who meets Alfred Brooks, now a forty-year-old policeman, in New York. Alfred rescues Sonny from a drug war and teaches him to box. In The Chief (1993), Sonny tries to become a heavyweight champion and must deal with problems similar to those that Lipsyte learned about as a sports journalist.
Some of the most successful of Lipsyte's works, other than The Contender (1967), are those in the trilogy featuring Bobby Marks: One Fat Summer (1977), Summer Rules (1981), and The Summerboy (1982). All take place in Rumson Lake, an upstate New York resort town. Bobby deals with problems like those that other young adults might face between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. In the first novel, he is known as the "Crisco Kid" because of his obesity. He must deal with a local bully named Willie Rumson who enjoys humiliating Bobby. In addition to losing weight, Bobby learns to stand up for himself. In the second novel, Bobby is sixteen and faces a more complicated dilemma. His old enemy, Willie Rumson, is falsely accused of arson. Bobby knows that his girlfriend's troubled younger cousin set the fire, and he must decide whether to tell the truth. Bobby is eighteen in the third book and dealing with unsafe working conditions at a laundry where he is employed. Speaking up will likely lose him his job.
Works of Nonfiction
Much of Lipsyte's nonfiction deals with sports, but here again he rarely takes a conventional approach. He is especially concerned that children are subjected to sports in negative ways. Sports should be fun and entertaining; winning need not be the only goal. Although he is not anti-sport, he is disillusioned by a culture of champions that he calls "Sportsworld." SportsWorld, as Lipsyte points out in the book by that name, "is a grotesque distortion of sports." It honors the winner more than the race. As illustrated in The Contender, Lipsyte values the process more than the result; competing well is more important than winning itself.
Lipsyte was among the first to accept and respect the unconventional prizefighter Muhammad Ali. His agreement that Ali should be allowed to be himself is echoed in the title of his 1978 book on the complicated man: Free to Be Muhammad Ali.
In 1978, Robert Lipsyte was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Despite his eventual recovery from that first bout, he was diagnosed with cancer a second time in 1991. His experience with the illness led to another novel for young adults, The Chemo Kid (1992). In it, the protagonist, Fred Bauer, an ordinary high school junior in almost every way, discovers he has cancer and undergoes a series of experimental hormone treatments. Miraculously, Fred acquires superpowers, apparently due to the treatments, and becomes "The Chemo Kid," fighting for the environment and against drug dealers.
An adult consideration of cancer, and sickness in general, is Lipsyte's 1998 nonfiction work, In the Country of Illness. Here, he speaks of infirmity as if it is a foreign land, a place he calls "Malady . . . another country, scary and strange." Basing his accounts on his own experiences, as well as those of other family members, he comforts, advises, warns, and informs the reader with tenderness, insight, and wit. Lipsyte's second wife, Margie, learned that she had breast cancer after their divorce. Especially moving is the account of Lipsyte's second wife Margie's failing health, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, and the strength shown by Margie and their two young adult children.
In addition to the Emmy, Lipsyte's honors and awards include the Dutton Best Sports Stories Award, E. P. Dutton, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1976; the Mike Berger Award, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1966 and 1996; Wel-Met Children's Book Award, 1967; New York Times outstanding children's book of the year citation, 1977; American Library Association best young adult book citation, 1977; and New Jersey Author citation, 1978.