On a recent evening Venice Adrien, wearing a white terry-cloth pant suit, welcomed me into her apartment at the Chelsea Hotel, where she’s been living for 14 years.
“It’s a good place to live and it’s a good place to hide,” she said, as her Italian greyhound, Geist, sniffed me. She offered me a Tab and then poured me a glass of Veuve Cliquot. The door to her balcony overlooking 23rd Street let in a cool breeze.
“Are you going to come with me to the race track?” she said. “I might go Saturday, I’m definitely going Monday. It’s going to be wonderful. The horse of the year for 2002, Azeri-a female, mind you-is going up against Pico Central. He’s a really, really fast sprinter.”
The night before, Ms. Adrien, 32, was managing the nightclub Marquee on Tenth Avenue. “I ran around and did what I had to do there, just did my job basically, dealing with promoters and D.J.’s and all that crap,” she said. “At the end of the night there was a fight outside the club. At 5 or 6 in the morning, I bumped into Detective Strucker and his partner, they came rolling by in a taxicab-they were undercover or whatever-and they took me home, which was nice. They said, ‘Our job used to be great, we’re bored out of our minds. There’s no shootings, no stabbings, there’s nothing.’ There’s cops in New York who have nothing to do but take you home. They dropped me off, I went to bed, slept a couple hours, woke up too early. I went and got a Racing Form to see if there was anything juicy to play.”
Ms. Adrien is 5-foot-2, skinny and unconventionally pretty, with plump Angelina Jolie lips and Pamela Anderson–size breasts. “It’s a tough look to describe,” said nightlife promoter Steve Lewis. “It’s very Jessica Rabbit meets downtown chick …. Straight men are very intimidated by her and gay men are immediately attracted to her.”
About a year ago, Ms. Adrien eased up on managing nightclubs; she’d had horse racing on her mind, so she took the train from Penn Station to Belmont.
“It was beautiful and I fell in love with the sport,” she said. “I didn’t play, I didn’t wager for a good four months. I picked up just about every book I could on the subject and I’m still studying. I like vices. I just figured I might as well stay in vices. Nightclubs, race track, it’s the same to me somehow.”
She often comes home from the track with about $600 in her pocket. “Sometimes I make enough to pay my rent, and sometimes I’m a little ahead,” she said. “I do it on a month-to-month thing. Last December and last February I got murdered .
“I feel comfortable at the track, it’s full of misfits,” she continued. “When I walk to the paddock, it’s exciting. You’re on the ground on the lawn as they come around the second turn of the back stretch, and you feel the ground go buh-boom-buh-boom , and these little guys flying by at 35 miles an hour and these beautiful, beautiful, expensive, sexy thoroughbreds-there’s just something about it, it’s very seductive.”
I looked around her living room. It was filled with musty dead animals, including a raccoon, a deer head, a possum, a baboon, a black-bear head and a snow leopard. “He’s endangered, falling apart, but he’s one of my favorites, ’cause you know you’re not supposed to have him,” she said. “Sometimes I just like to look at them. Everything’s from the flea market. I love animals, I love to look at them, dead or alive-whatever. They’re beautiful. And I couldn’t really afford to buy art. So taxidermy goes on the walls-why not?” In her bedroom she has a stuffed pheasant and a stuffed bat and bottles of Chanel No. 5 and Opium on her dresser. She said she rents her apartment out for photo shoots. “That’s what I kind of do to pick up the slack on my income,” she said.
Although she’s managed some of the city’s top nightclubs, she herself rarely goes out, doesn’t dance and doesn’t watch TV. She hates to make plans.
“It’s kind of scary, because I don’t know how I’m going to be feeling the next day,” she said. “Who could figure that out? I’m happiest, I’m most secure when I’m here by myself. That’s second to Belmont. I’ve heard that the race track is an escape, but I think it’s all very real.”
What makes her a recluse?
” People ,” she whispered. “I like them, I do . But I just have a hard time socially, a little bit. It’s not them, it’s me . Sometimes I get tired. Sometimes I say things I don’t mean, by mistake. I just don’t like to have to be dealing with these things; I’d rather lead my happy-go-lucky life.”
The next night we met at the Howard Johnson’s in Times Square. She goes there at night to study the horses.
“I met a really great group of physicists here once,” she said. “They were really nice and they were explaining to me singularities and black holes. It was really cool. There’s cool people here, there’s real people here-it’s not like hanging out in a nightclub. It’s kind of like being on the subway, only cleaner. You can get sherbet here, wonderful orange sherbet-and a parfait, those are really good, too.”
She was wearing a white, flower-print dress, gold slippers and a long gold necklace. Her look, she said, was “à la Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company . She had great style, so did Carol Burnett.”
“I feel bad droning on about myself,” she said. “I feel like a dick. I want to talk about horse racing . I’m worried about it. The average horse player is in his, like, 40′s, 50′s. You don’t see any young people there-where’s the next generation of wagerers and thoroughbred owners? It scares me.”
She revealed a bit more about herself, reluctantly. She grew up in Orange County, Calif., and had a very unhappy childhood. Her mother did “nothing, ever”; her workaholic father had corporate jobs.
“I don’t really know them very well,” she said. “I heard that they recently divorced, but I don’t know because I don’t speak with them.”
At 14 she started working as a restaurant hostess. “I was excited at the prospect of being a grown-up and getting out ,” she said. “That’s what got me through every day.” She moved away from home in ninth grade and rented a room from a friend. But one day her parents seized her bank account; that night she left Orange County and hasn’t talked to them since.
“I just don’t really like them at all; I don’t even want to talk about them,” she said. “They’re weenies.”
Her grandparents were cool. “I’m worried that it skips a generation,” she said. “I’m an O.K. kid. So if I had kids-would they be weenies, too? If I breed I’ve got to be real careful who I’m breeding with …. God forbid I had a weenie. But then my grandkids would be cool.”
At 15 she was on her own in Los Angeles, on the Sunset Strip with under $200. She checked into a dive. “I’m a runaway, running low on money after a couple days, I’m homeless for a little while,” she said. “That was fun. Sleeping outside, wherever, for a couple weeks. I’m thinking about things, I’m crying a lot, trying to get food. That’s where my friend Ron came in.”
Ron is porn star Ron Jeremy. They met at a nightclub; she didn’t know who he was. Down to her last cent, she freaked out one night and called him. He gave her a room in his condo, said she could clean up there, and that she had to finish school.
“He is the nicest person,” Venice said. “He is so caring. He has his degree in education and he used to teach handicapped, retarded kids. He’s very patient and calm and nice and wonderful and funny.”
She stayed with him until she was 17. Every day she’d sleep late, wait for “Dad” to come home, then go to parties with him.
“It was brother-sister, father-daughter, not romantic, not boyfriend-girlfriend, not lovers,” she said. They ate crackers and cheese and the “picked-over porn grapes” left over from porn sets.
Being around the porn industry as a teen was “pretty eye-opening,” she said. “When you’re young, you think it’s so glamorous and the women are so beautiful,” she said. “I was really taken. I just thought that was it . I am lucky that Ron came around when he did because God only knows.”
She said Mr. Jeremy still takes her to Disney World every year. Last time, he got recognized a lot because of his appearance in a 2003 WB reality show. Even preteen kids knew who he was.
“It wasn’t just the parents this time,” she said. “It’s O.K., you know, he’s a good guy. He’s not out to poison anyone.” She added that she doesn’t watch her adoptive father’s movies. “It’s weird .”
At 17 she checked into the Chelsea Hotel. There, she met night-life promoter Steven Lewis, who was living in the penthouse. He hired her as a bartender at the Tunnel; she wore a tight T-shirt that read “44″ (her chest size) and a pile of suits would gather around her. People would call up asking if “44″ was working that night.
“She has an incredible look and incredible charisma,” Mr. Lewis said. Throughout the 90′s Mr. Lewis gave her jobs at Life, Spa, Plaid. “She’s really tough,” he said. “She’s really good at dealing with police officers and problems and tough guys. In fact, the tougher the situation the better she is.”
She worked for Mr. Lewis six, seven nights a week, until he had to go to jail for nine months in 2002 for his alleged involvement in narcotics trafficking at the Limelight nightclub. Ms. Adrien visited him once a week: After her Saturday shift ended at 6 a.m. at Plaid, a limousine would pick her up and take her into deep Pennsylvania. The first time she went to the minimum-security prison, they wouldn’t let her in-she had no ID. But she had a photograph of herself from Playboy magazine (clothed, at a party with Hef) so the authorities made an exception.
Back in Manhattan she had a lot of free time she didn’t know what to do with. Her grandfather, whom she never knew, once had a thoroughbred in California.
“He and my grandmother had their picture taken in the winner’s circle in Holly Park, and I used to look at the picture and wonder what it was about,” she said. “Somewhere, it was always in the back of my head.”
We’d finished our chicken fingers at Howard Johnsons.
“They have a really good bar behind you,” she said. “They know how to make Pink Squirrels and Grasshoppers, which you can’t get at trendy places. You can order things like Golden Cadillacs. I’m not gonna drink a Cosmopolitan, I think it’s kind of silly.”
She said she’s dating someone, but wasn’t sure about the whole idea of marriage. “I have mixed feelings about longevity and commitment, things like that,” she said. “It’s real tricky. I don’t know if I’ll ever get married. A part of me really wants to, but I don’t know if I’m really built to last. I have a theory: that I’m kind of a mistress, I’m not a wife, you know?”
She looked down and studied her Racing Form .
“You know, I’m still kind of green,” she said. “Gee whiz. We have to find out if it’s gonna rain cause the two big races tomorrow are both scheduled for the grass. Spice Island is running tomorrow. That’s good.”
I noted that she seemed to live pretty freely.
“I live in a hotel, I have no commitments,” she said. “Do I have a lease? No. It feels fantastic. There’s such luxury that goes along with freedom and I don’t want to be trapped. I don’t want to be put in a cage, who wants that ? I can get out tomorrow, I can get out tonight . And maybe one day I’ll find a really lovely cage and I’ll just settle in fine. Maybe I’ll just disappear one day and go live in the hills of Austria and beekeep. I’ve been reading about it-I’ve got four books on beekeeping I found on the world-wide Internet.”
“I’m winging it,” she continued. “I’ve been winging it my whole life. Who knows, I could wind up old and decrepit and 70, chain-smoking and slinging drinks in Reno. I could and I may be happy! Face sagging and bright nails. It’s O.K., as long as I’m happy. I probably shouldn’t be. I should probably be pretty miserable. I mean, if you look at me on paper, I don’t look so good.”
She said she was going to Montauk in a few days-she’d check into a cheap hotel, feed the birds on the beach, wander around with her metal detector.
“I’ll find a lot of pull tabs from sodas,” she said. “I always think this is the summer I’m gonna get the real big score, like a big fat Rolex, I’ll live on easy street for a while. There’s no races on Tuesday, I have nothing better to do. Belmont’s closed. Metal-detecting’s good cause you can do it alone. It’s a hobby you can have and it involves nobody else’s schedule. You know what I mean? I’ve never scored. Best thing I ever found was a gold tooth.”
She told me that she never plays a hunch.
“As a matter of fact, a lot of the time I don’t play races where I’m too much of a fan,” she said. “Here’s one I used to do in the beginning: If I felt a horse owed me money because he lost the last time, I’d put money on him. That’s ridiculous. If I’m a fan of a certain hero, a crown hero, then I try to stay away-because I think I have a tendency to put my money there because I want him to win so bad. It’s silly, you know. I’m going to harden my heart soon, so it won’t matter. But I guess I’m still such a huge, huge, huge fan. Who isn’t, though?”
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