The Real Housewife of New York (Who Happens to Be a Poker Star)


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Helen Ellis is not your ordinary housewife. She is a shrewd poker player who competes in high-stakes tournaments, and the author of a forthcoming story collection, “American Housewife.”

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Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

“You realize, of course, this is actually a fight club,” Helen Ellis said, as she took my coat.

She spoke in a sweet Southern accent. Behind her were four members of her weekly bridge group, wearing cashmere cardigans or fitted black dresses with chunky jewelry.

At 10 on a Tuesday morning, we stood in the living room of Ms. Ellis’s spacious Upper East Side apartment. She had set out a pot of tea, a tray of pastries, berries with cream. Nearby was a white Christmas tree nine feet tall, decorated entirely in insect ornaments: gold glitter dragonflies, glass ladybugs, brightly colored beetles.

Each December, her tree has a different theme. She includes the previous year’s ornaments in the gift bags she gives to the 150 guests at her annual holiday party.

Ms. Ellis, 45, calls herself a housewife. But that only begins to describe her. She is also a shrewd poker player who regularly competes in high-stakes tournaments, and the author of a forthcoming story collection, “American Housewife,” that focuses a dark and humorous lens on the domestic. Early reviews have been glowing; Booklist compared her to Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood.

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Ms. Atwood herself recently tweeted: “Reading ‘American Housewife’ by Helen Ellis. Pretty ferocious! (And ferocious about ‘pretty.’) Cackle-making.” Weeks before the book’s release, Ms. Atwood named it one of her favorites of the year in The Guardian.

“When you meet Helen, at first you think: president of a Southern college sorority,” said one of her bridge guests, Jean McKeever. “What you find is she’s this hilarious, twisted, many-layered person.”

Midway through the game, one player accidentally showed her cards. Ms. Ellis sneaked a peek.

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Helen Ellis playing poker with her friends.

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Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

“She’s a cheater,” said her bridge partner, Erica Schultz.

“It’s not cheating if someone puts a little kitten in your lap,” Ms. Ellis said.

After bridge, she sat down in her bright orange den, eating a leftover croissant with jam and talking about her life.

Raised in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Ms. Ellis moved to New York in 1992, on her 22nd birthday. She wanted to be a writer.

“I arrived dressed in my finest, which at the time was Talbots,” she said. “The long plaid wool skirt and the turtleneck. I kept walking by that store, trying to get a job in publishing. I ended up getting a job at Talbots.”

Later, she was hired as an assistant at Individual Investor magazine. While there, she applied to, and was rejected by, several M.F.A. programs. But eventually, New York University took her off the wait list.

The day after she got the news, a reporter named Lex Haris walked into her office.

“I had the biggest smile on my face,” Ms. Ellis said. “He thought it was for him, but really it was because I had just quit.”

The misunderstanding was fortuitous. She had been trying to flirt with him for weeks. (“I would bring him People magazines, wrinkled because I had read them in the tub. I just put that image in his mind.”)

They went out that night and were married six years later. Mr. Haris is now the executive editor of CNNMoney. Happily child-free, the couple has two cats, Tang Tang and Big Boy, who, true to his name, weighs 25 pounds.

Throughout graduate school, Ms. Ellis worked as a temp. During her last semester, she became a secretary in the chairman’s office at Chanel, a job she would keep for a decade.

A year out of school, in 1998, she sold her debut novel, “Eating the Cheshire Cat.” The book earned good reviews and solid sales. But a follow-up proved elusive. Ms. Ellis spent six years writing a second novel that was never published. She wrote another after that, which also failed to find a home. Then her husband suggested that she quit her job to write full time.

“So I quit,” Ms. Ellis said. “I wrote another book. Nobody wanted to buy that one either.”

She wrote a young adult book “for hire,” about teenagers who turn into cats. The sales were dismal.

After that, she stopped writing altogether. Most people she met had no idea she had ever been a writer. Upon learning that she didn’t work or have children, they often asked what she did all day.

“I settled into what became a very happy life,” she said. “You ask yourself, ‘What happens if I stop writing?’ First of all, nobody cares. And you put on 10 pounds. That’s all it is.”

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Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

She collected paintings by emerging artists, cleaned her home religiously and hosted fund-raisers for her favorite causes, including One Story, a literary magazine edited by a friend from her N.Y.U. days, Hannah Tinti. (Along with the novelist Ann Napolitano, they have met monthly over dinner for the last 20 years. “That has been a marriage for me,” Ms. Ellis said.)

She also had more time to devote to a lifelong passion: poker. Her father taught her seven-card stud when she was 6. Ms. Ellis started entering tournaments in 2008. In 2010, she played at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas for the first time. She won nearly $20,000.

“Some of the most interesting people I’ve met, I’ve met through poker,” she said.

One of her regular games is attended by both Broadway pit musicians and high-ranking members of law enforcement, all but one of them male.

In 2011, the writer Colson Whitehead hired Ms. Ellis to be his coach at the World Series of Poker. He immortalized the experience in his book “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death.”

“In a male-dominated game, where female players often affect an Annie Oakley tomboy thing to fit in, the housewife-player was an unlikely sight,” Mr. Whitehead wrote. “The dudes flirted and condescended, and then this prim creature in a black sweater and pearls walloped them. ‘A lot of people don’t think women will bluff,’ Helen said. She was bluffing the moment she walked into the room.”

Ms. Ellis was thrilled by Mr. Whitehead’s portrayal of her. “I thought at the time, ‘If this is the last that I’m published, I’m very happy letting that be what anybody thinks.’”

But the urge to write remained. So she started an anonymous Twitter feed. She gave it the name American Housewife and the handle @WhatIDoAllDay. She tweeted about her life.

When Ms. Ellis tweeted, “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster,” she was retweeted over a hundred times and earned dozens of followers. The tweet became the opening line of what would eventually be her new book.

Slowly, she began to write again. Short stories this time, in the voices of housewives. The stories are addictive and full of pitch-perfect observations like, “the only thing with less character than Chardonnay is wainscoting” and “Delores was as fertile as a Duggar.” They are populated by, among others, neighbors in a co-op whose fight over decorating turns deadly; women in a book club trying to seduce a new member into carrying their babies; and a chilling series of dead doormen.

Ms. Ellis placed the stories in literary journals. Last spring, her agent sent the collection to publishers. The book received multiple pre-empt offers and sold in three days to Doubleday.

Fifteen years after the release of her first book, she said, “I am very aware at 45 that this is special.”

She displays none of the neuroses of most writers on the cusp of a book release: “The worst-case scenario is that this fails terribly and I go back to a very nice life.”

It does sound very nice: after we parted ways, she took a nap, she said, then met up with a friend to see “Hamilton.” The next day, she planned to attend a book signing by Dita Von Teese (“My spirit animal”) in the lingerie department at Bloomingdale’s. Ms. Ellis’s email signoff when making plans is a single word: “Enjoyable!” At this point, she has no interest in doing anything that isn’t.

Asked if she fears that the book will offend friends or acquaintances, she said, without blinking, “I don’t care.” Then she added, “Though I’m curious to see what my doormen will think.”

Correction: December 23, 2015

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Helen Ellis’s bridge partner. She is Erica Schultz, not Shultz.



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