SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
January 04, 1971
Stewart McDonald got to the bottom of things years ago: he kicked off his shoes and started strolling barefoot through life. Now, on the fringe of the flaky Florida sport world, his footprint is his trademark
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January 04, 1971

Top Hat, White Tie And Bare Toes

Stewart McDonald got to the bottom of things years ago: he kicked off his shoes and started strolling barefoot through life. Now, on the fringe of the flaky Florida sport world, his footprint is his trademark

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Henry Stewart McDonald III deposited his dusty 1966 Oldsmobile in a handy no-parking zone outside one of those eager Miami Beach hotels. Then he paused to arrange some things in the trunk, including a pair of old brown loafers he had brought along in case of an emergency, like a funeral, say, or perhaps a royal coronation. Today, happily, promised no such crisis: just a frilly luncheon meeting of several hundred Miami Beach businessmen that a friend had invited him to. And so, leaving the loafers in the trunk, McDonald, all spruced up in a maroon sports coat, white slacks and a snazzy scarf tie, strode barefoot into the hotel.

It was a splendid affair that brought out the very finest in men's footwear, plenty of suedes, patents and alligators with tassels and Gucci buckles galore. By the time it was over, Stew McDonald's unshod feet had attracted stares and sidelong glances from, variously, several tourists in the gold-draped lobby, quite a few cigar-chomping gentlemen inside a colonnaded dining room decorated in shades of pink and, not least, a couple of Spanish-speaking waiters. Finally, back in the lobby, somebody got around to asking him why he was not wearing shoes. McDonald, a tall, tanned figure topped by a shock of ash-white hair, actually seemed surprised by the question. "You know?" he said. "I do believe you're the only person today who's even noticed."

Any man who can draw stares in a place like Miami Beach can probably do so anywhere, which is precisely what Stew McDonald seems bent on proving during his footloose, barefoot dash through life. Indifferent to custom and convention, he has at one time or other ventured bravely barefoot down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, onto jetliners, into gala black-tie dinners—everywhere, as he puts it, except "parties which the hostess specifically designates as 'wear-shoe' affairs." And at home in Tampa he has gone merrily along for as much as a month at a stretch without putting on shoes.

This business of a man his age—he will be 46 next month—making like Huck Finn may seem a frivolous preoccupation, but it is an important one to Stew McDonald, one of the free-form operators who live by their wits on the fringes of sport. It certainly defines him more sharply in one's mind, for example, than the fact that he finished 10th in total winnings—something over $6,000—as a driver on the Eastern stock-car circuit back in 1948. As biography goes, it is more relevant than the news that two years later, with a casual versatility, he was runner-up in mixed doubles in the world water-ski championship. Unquestionably, it merits a more prominent mention on his résumé than his random roles as auto mechanic, photographer, TV announcer, coach, pilot, model—name it and McDonald will gladly tell when and where he did it. And that, whenever possible, he did it in his bare feet.

And why did he? On occasion, his motive has been to openly and unabashedly attract attention, starting with the time years ago when the promoter of a Chicago water-ski show paid McDonald $200 to go barefoot into the Pump Room, one of that city's elegant restaurants, as a publicity stunt. As a stock-car racer, McDonald often drove barefoot in the belief that it helped him control the car ("The feet just kiss the pedals"), and when a public-address announcer in West Palm Beach introduced him one day as "Barefoot McDonald," it occurred to him to start trading on the idea. Billing himself under the name, he found he was soon able to wrangle $25 or more in appearance money from promoters.

Such practical considerations aside, it also happens that Barefoot feels strongly enough about the barefoot thing to have kicked up a memorable fuss the time he was summarily evicted from a Las Vegas casino, where he had been playing blackjack sans shoes. "Whadya mean, bare feet?" demanded McDonald as he was shown the way out. "You've got broads in here wearing dresses without any backs. Some of the dresses don't even have any fronts." Lately, in reaction to the hippie phenomenon, some restaurants have banned bare feet, but McDonald dismisses such places as "rinky-dink, honky-tonk old greasy spoons." Given his earnestness on the subject, one can sympathize with an ex-girl friend, who, after breaking up with McDonald, went out and married a shoe manufacturer.

Quite simply, McDonald is happiest when he keeps those 11Ds of his unencumbered. "I just don't like being restricted," he says, and this helps account for the loose-fitting adornments he favors in general, including a wristwatch that threatens to slide to his elbow whenever he raises his arm. It helps account, too, for the fact that Barefoot McDonald, nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Miami as student-body president and a young man ever so likely to succeed, has yet to begin anything resembling a coherent career.

This fundamental approach to life has been a cause of concern, if not wonderment, to one of McDonald's younger sisters, who prays for him regularly, to the different women he dates (a three-year marriage ended in divorce in 1956) and to his father, a lawyer and high-ranking official in the Interior Department, who routinely says of his son: "This boy could have been president of U.S. Steel or General Motors."

"There are only two reasons I'm not," the son answers, just as routinely. "One, they haven't asked me. Two, I don't want to be."

Instead of running a corporation, McDonald moves easily between a remarkable variety of jobs. Flick on the television one day and you might find him doing the color commentary for some water-ski segment on ABC-TV's Wide World of Sports, an occasional chore that flows from his experience as public-address announcer at water-ski competitions. To find him some other time, you might have to seek McDonald out at his part-time job—a lower-exposure sort of thing—as a mechanic at an auto tune-up shop in Tampa. Just look for a couple of naked grease-stained feet peeking out from under a car, and Stew McDonald will be at the other end.

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