Atlanta magazine :: November 2009 :: Riverbend
November 2009

Hoochie Koo!

In the swinging seventies, no place swung like Riverbend—Atlanta’s most notorious singles complex
By Charles Bethea

The one-year-old leasing office at Walton on the Chattahoochee, a clean, quiet apartment community sprawled along a voluptuous bend in the river off Akers Mill Road, has forty-year-old slate floors. They can’t talk, of course. But Norm Cates, sixty-three, who stands sweating upon them now for the first time since 1978—next to Walton’s tense-looking director of public relations—can. This is no small thing.

“Right where we’re standing,” Cates says, “in my Air Force flight suit and pilot helmet, with the oxygen face mask and all, I tried to do a flip off the bar one Halloween, but my Jack Daniel’s–polluted gyros went out and I slammed my head. Right here.”

The slate floor right here, beside a sales desk, was originally part of the main clubhouse at Riverbend, Walton’s notorious “singles-only” apartment predecessor, whose heyday, like Cates’s, was some thirty-five years ago. There’s no sign of this footnote to the life of Cates, publisher of a broadsheet (Norm Cates’ Club Insider) that calls itself “The ‘Pulse’ of the Health, Racquet, and Sports Club Industry Worldwide.”

Today it’s just a tidy office, like so many others in this city, except that it once held parties where there were 2,637 paying singles and 126 kegs of beer.

Walton’s public relations director, noticeably disturbed by Cates’s brand of nostalgia, suggests that we take a walk outside. Good idea, except that outside is where Riverbend’s nude pool parties took place.

An article titled “Atlanta’s Beat Goes On” in the July 24, 1972, issue of Time magazine drew attention to the phenomenon: “[Developers have] helped make Atlanta a mecca for swinging singles with some 4,000 apartments,” it read, “half of them designed for the young and unmarried set.”

At a Waffle House in Buckhead, Jeryl Hensley sits drinking coffee. He’s sixty-eight years old, living at a modest senior home around the corner. This is neither a miracle (that he’s alive) nor a tragedy (that he’s living this way); it’s both. Hensley, you see, was the undisputed king of Riverbend, the man who launched a thousand singles parties, earned millions of dollars and made hundreds of stewardesses disrobe, lost it all with a shrug, and ended up a 1970s version of Ozymandias—a warm smile instead of a sneer of cold command—living off Social Security.

He pulls up the right leg of his tattered jeans and displays a small Playboy tattoo, inked in California back in 1962. It’s a fading reminder.

Hensley finishes his coffee and steps outside, where he chats up a girl in her twenties, who smiles at this limping, red-eyed old charmer in need of a drink. Of his fortune, he’ll say again what he’s said before: “Ninety-five percent was spent on women and liquor, and the other 5 percent was wasted.”

In the following pages, fifteen men and women lucky enough to have lived through it offer an oral history of a bygone time and place in Atlanta called Riverbend.

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