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.
January 4, 1971
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.
Or stay put and he will come to you. An improbable locale was Providence, R.I., where McDonald popped up as the advance man plugging Fireball Jungle, a low-budget bikini-and-motorcycle movie that was staging its New England premiere at a drive-in theater. It requires resourcefulness to live the way McDonald does—but he outdid himself on Fireball Jungle, an epic that moviegoers will remember for the scene in a nightclub called the Throne Room, in which the customers don't sit on bar-stools but on gaily decorated toilet seats. Arriving in Providence, McDonald, drawing on his watery background, got a bright idea. He mounted a toilet on a pair of water skis, sat down on it and went for a spin on wintry Narragansett Bay for the benefit of local photographers. It all worked fine for about 100 yards until, without warning, the contraption suddenly nose-dived and McDonald had to be fished ingloriously from the icy waters.
"It was the first time I'd ever plugged a movie," he admits. "The thing with the toilet was something I devised on the spot. I had to wing it." After thawing out, McDonald further winged it by hiring several girls, dressing them in pussycat costumes and putting them to work distributing Fireball Jungle leaflets from the back of a flatbed truck. He was arrested for holding a parade without a permit. Still, there is an edge of satisfaction in his voice when he says, "Well, at least the arrest made the newspapers, so we salvaged something."
At home in Tampa, McDonald has put his ingenuity to work by going into business—part-time, of course—as an "auto-repair broker," a service he describes with the rhythmic, enthusiastic cadences of a carnival barker. "The way it works," he says, "I take your car and get it fixed for you, and make sure the job is done right. If the car needs tires, I take it to the best tire shop. If it needs a new transmission, I go to the best transmission shop and make the deal. I save you the running around, and I see to it that the work gets done right and it doesn't cost you any more, either. I make my money by getting discounts from the various shops."
McDonald also makes his services available as a toastmaster, commercial photographer and public-address announcer—he will announce festivities for Tampa's annual Gasparilla Pirate Invasion next month—and he is head of the local Quiet Birdmen, an organization of aviation enthusiasts. If there is any focal point for his activity, it is water skiing. Besides performing and announcing, McDonald has been involved in virtually every facet of the sport, from judging at meets to authoring various how-to manuals. Since 1964 he also has been coach of the water-ski team at the University of Tampa, which is the only college to accord the sport varsity status, sending its coeducational team out against ski clubs from other warm-weather schools.
Two of these clubs, one representing the University of South Florida and the other St. Petersburg Junior College, also are coached by McDonald. Last November all three of his schools competed in an 11-school tournament in Tampa. McDonald, who co-authored the official intercollegiate water-ski rules, was tournament chairman and served as a judge. "We're a little short of officials in this sport," he explained. At that meet, because of just such activities, a member of the Rollins College water-ski team accused McDonald of a conflict of interest. After due and careful consideration, McDonald rejected the complaint.
It was water skiing that got McDonald into modeling, a career that peaked when he starred a few years ago in one of those "greasy kid stuff" TV commercials, in which he taught an aspiring water skier the intricacies of both fancy midair turns and proper grooming. He also has posed for ads touting shaving lather and deodorant, but some sponsors have spurned McDonald on the grounds that his ruddily masculine looks suggest Lee Marvin, a resemblance they fear might detract from the product. This would probably trouble McDonald more, except that, as he unblushingly points out, "Lee Marvin happens to be a fine actor and a very handsome man."
Ostensibly, McDonald's principal business is Stew's Ski School, which a Tampa television announcer once referred to, in a memorable blooper, as Stee's Screw School. It operates out of a motel on Old Tampa Bay and offers water-ski instruction by McDonald and two full-time assistants. The school brings in just enough money to keep McDonald out of shoes. The big problem is that he is seldom around to keep an eye on things. "I'd do a helluva lot better if I stuck to one thing." he admits, "but I guess it's against my nature." In an effort to juggle everything McDonald always carries a clipboard on which he logs phone calls, keeps track of the traffic tickets he is forever collecting and jots down such favorite aphorisms as "The best helping hand is the one at the end of your own arm." The clipboard also reminds him of appointments he hopes to keep and errands he intends to get around to running.
"I don't trust any man who doesn't carry a clipboard," McDonald says flatly, ignoring the fact that his own system often seems to be on the verge of collapse. His four-room home—shared with nine cats—is amazingly cluttered with a lifetime accumulation of possessions, including boxes of photographs, piles of old newspapers and correspondence, not to mention several hundred empty egg cartons he has never had the heart to throw out. Burdened by all his projects and paperwork, McDonald finds punctuality an elusive trait, and sometimes he neglects to show up altogether.
A mercurial nature makes McDonald's life all the more volatile. There was the time that an obstinate parking-lot attendant at Tampa's airport refused to cash a personal check for fees covering McDonald's 1949 Plymouth. "Well, keep the damned car, then," McDonald fumed. Although the Plymouth was worth considerably more than the parking charge, he never returned to claim it.
Much of his wrath McDonald saves for the police, whom he is forever attracting because of an avowed disregard for traffic laws. "Maybe it's childish of me," he says of all the speeding tickets he collects, "but I'm a better driver than, you are, so I think I'm qualified to drive faster than you do. Of course, I've had" to pay the penalty all my life for maintaining that belief."
McDonald has also received a number of tickets for driving without shoes, even though, contrary to a widely held belief, it is perfectly legal to drive barefoot in any of the 50 states. (Indeed, one state automobile association advised its members a few years ago that motorists might relax on long trips by removing their shoes.) This is something that McDonald naturally makes it his business to know, even though the fact eludes some policemen. Once McDonald was wheeling a motorcycle barefoot through Tampa when a cop, also on a motorcycle, pulled alongside at a red light and growled, "Where's your shoes?"
"I haven't got any," said McDonald.
"You mean here?" the officer asked.
"I mean anywhere." Whereupon the light turned green.
At the next red light the policeman pulled alongside to resume the exchange. "You mean you're riding without any shoes?" he demanded.
"I guess that's what I'm doing, all right," came the reply.
There was a slight pause. "Doesn't it hurt your feet?"
"Only if I put them down over 30 miles an hour." Green light.
Next intersection. "Guess you know it's against the law," the officer said.
"Bet you a ticket it's not."
And so, of course, he was ticketed. When McDonald arrived in court, the judge asked for his plea. "I can't plead either guilty or not guilty, your honor," he replied, "because no such charge exists." He was right, and the case was dismissed.
It was after his discharge from the service in late 1945 (he was a World War II sergeant and a Korean war pilot) that McDonald began his auto-racing career. In 1948, the year he won that $6,000-plus, McDonald crashed his 1940 Ford coupe in a feature race in North Carolina and suffered a severely wrenched back. When the doctor recommended that he swim four hours a day as therapy, McDonald decided that such a regimen might best be followed in Florida.
Although he remembers disliking shoes from earliest childhood, it was the feel of the warm Florida sand underfoot that set McDonald squarely on his barefoot course. It was there—after he resumed his racing career—that he took up the name Barefoot McDonald. It was there, too, while enrolled at the University of Miami, that he took up water skiing. He made pilgrimages to that mecca of water skiing, Cypress Gardens, and before long was performing in shows and competing in meets. About that time the Cypress Garden crowd was discovering the first primitive techniques of skiing barefoot—and Barefoot McDonald, of all people, could hardly have held his head high if he had not become one of the first to learn the trick.
The problem then, as now, was that there have never been enough hours to satisfy all his energy and enthusiasm. "I don't regret anything except all the time I've dissipated," says McDonald, who sometimes seems as if he is trying to pick up a moment he might have lost along the way. A typical weekday in Tampa found him off on a dozen errands: one moment he was arranging the next monthly meeting of the Quiet Birdmen. The next he was visiting The Tampa Tribune to plead the case of a water skier whose jumping ramp had provoked complaints from residents of a local lake.
Few of the day's errands had anything to do with his various jobs. Finally, in late afternoon, McDonald stopped by the garage where he is employed as a mechanic. He was gently reminded that he had promised to report for work that morning.
"I got tied up," he said. "I'll be in tomorrow morning."
Next day, however, he failed to appear. He was tied up again, this time on last-minute production details for a movie, a training film for gas-station attendants. Another of McDonald's part-time jobs, as it happens, is as production manager for television and industrial films.
And so Stew McDonald continues to resist restrictions. Visiting the oak-shaded University of Tampa one day to drop off some bills incurred by his water-ski team, he happened to glance at a front-page headline in the student newspaper. The story told of changes in student-dress regulations, including rules that would now allow coeds to wear pants on campus. Still in effect, though, was a regulation requiring students to wear shoes. Walking along the campus, McDonald said, "You know something? I don't believe those rules apply in any way to coaches." As he savored the irony of it, his bare feet stirred up little clouds of dust, and he threw back his head and laughed.