More than 35 years after he died at age 50, Steve McQueen has become to men’s style what a Band Aid is to an adhesive bandage or Kleenex is to tissues. He is metonymically menswear. The actor has become so iconic, it’s easy to forget that he once was just a guy.
Besides films like Bullitt and The Great Escape, much of McQueen’s myth seems to rest on a series of photographs taken by John Dominis for LIFE magazine in the summer of 1963. For three weeks, Dominis lived with McQueen and his then-wife, the actress and dancer Neile Adams, in their desert home in Palm Springs, California. McQueen did all the manly things: shot a pistol, punched a bag, smoked cigarettes, listened to Sonny Rollins on vinyl, walked around the pool naked.
With the exception of that last one, he did this all wearing simple but exceedingly cool clothing. Sweatpants, chinos, white sneakers: the holy trinity. In hindsight, it is difficult to discern whether or not this is simply a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Is Steve McQueen cool because of his clothing or is his clothing cool because of Steve McQueen? At any rate, after the pictures came out, the myth of McQueen irreversibly took flight. He didn’t just play a cool guy in movies; he was one.
There’s an image, one of the most recognized of McQueen, sitting on a sofa, pointing a .22 caliber pistol. He’s wearing sunglasses, khakis, and a short-sleeve button up. His legs are propped on a coffee table and on his feet a pair of white Keds, sans socks natch. It is through this image that I got to know Neile Adams and discovered the secret of McQueen’s feet.
I was working a piece for Esquire on the evolution of the white sneaker and why men now are content to pay $1,200 for a version of it. Naturally, the journey led me to Palm Springs, California, summer of 1963, couch of Steve McQueen. I had called Neile, now a cabaret singer in Century City—Variety called her act “sensaysh”—to walk me through that moment.
Steve was waiting for Neile to get ready to go shoot lizards in the backyard, she said. Then, off-handedly, she mentioned that McQueen’s Keds phase was short lived. “Steve had bad feet,” she recalled. “One day Danny Kaye, who also had fallen arches, recommended he get custom-made a pair of Murray Space Shoes. Then that’s all he wore.” For a second, I enjoyed picturing Danny Kaye and Steve McQueen palling around, bonding over fallen arches. The scene literally could not be more pedestrian.
A second later, after I had Googled Murray Space Shoe, I was sure she had misremembered. There’s no way Steve McQueen wore shoes this outlandish. The Murray Space Shoe might be the ugliest shoe in modern history. A cross between a Hobbit foot and a gimp costume, the shoes are made of latex from plaster casts with a strange asymmetrical lace along the side. They are wide like the nose of a Ford Mustang or a Birkenstock. They look futuristic but futuristic according to a mid-’30s mind. Which is, of course, what they were.
Murray Space Shoe was the brain-child of a colorful professional ice skater named Alan M. Murray. In 1937, Murray set up shop with his well-heeled wife, Lucille Marsh Murray—the Marshes being a prominent New York family with deep roots in the artistic community—selling his custom made oxfords, which he dubbed “Murray Space Shoes.” According to the New Yorker, the shoes were “ large, lumpy, and thick-soled but wearers swear by them as to comfort.”
Quickly, the newfangled Space Shoe became the Yeezys of their day. Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, Fredric March, Arthur Godfrey and, of course, Danny Kaye became acolytes. In 1954, the Murrays bought a former stable owned by Helen Gould on 58th Street in Manhattan and turned it into what the Village Voice called a “Castle in Space.” It had its own private ice-skating rink.
Through the ’50s and ’60s, business boomed for the Murrays. On the strength of their claims of miracle cures and celebrity endorsements, their footprint expanded. Scores of Murray Space Shoe shops, dealers, and agents opened and the Murrays inaugurated a laboratory in Long Island City. But their rise was not without drama. In 1962, Murray Space Shoes lost a case brought against them by the Federal Trade Commission for false and misleading advertisements. Somewhere along the way, Alan E. Murray’s “girl Friday” as per a 1968 New York Times news service piece, Anna V. Schloegl, became his lover, though Lucille M. Murray refused to grant a divorce. She moved to Connecticut while Alan and Anna remained in Queens.
Lucille died in 1976 and Alan in 1978. The business passed, or rather what was left of it, to Anna who, in 1995 told New York Daily News reporter Vic Ziegel, “[Murray’s Space Shoes] started as a one-man business and it’s finishing up as a one-woman business.”
But that’s also not entirely correct. And this leads us to Guinda, California, a tiny speck of a town an hour west of Sacramento.
See, Murray Space Shoe isn’t dead yet. There’s a man in Guinda, a former walnut and persimmon farmer named Frank Espirella, who bought the rights to Murray Space Shoes from Lucille Marsh Murray in 1979, shortly before she died. [The name, like much else in the unhappy ménage of the Murrays, was a soured love triangle.] At any rate, Espirella is a true acolyte of Murray Space Shoes. His mother, an agent for the Murrays, bought her first pair in 1970 and together they bought the name.
Since then Espirella has written four downloadable books on the subject. “I’m 67,” he told me, “at the end of my business life. I wanted to pass on the craft.” The books are fitting accompaniment to the shoe: bizarre but brilliant. In the acknowledgments of his first book, Espirella thanks “Daniel Ellsberg for releasing the ‘Pentagon Papers’” and “William Davis, MD (author of Wheat Belly and Wheat Belly Cookbook) [for having] the courage to publicly ask the hardest questions.”
Today, Espirella makes about a hundred pairs of Murray Space Shoes a year. Clients are obligated to travel to Guinda so he can make a plaster cast of their feet. Each pair costs around $1,000. “I’m the person of last resort,” he told me.
As for the rest of the mighty Murray works, “nothing beside remains,” to ape Shelley. The Castle in Space is now a church. The frame of the West 10th Street store bore the name Space Shoe as late as 2004 when, according to the New York Times, it was the setting for nightly uke-i-nannies, or ukelele hootenannies, held by a ukelele duo, Sonic Uke. Among their songs is this line: “Yeah, we’re still sitting here / Waiting for the day the Murray Space Shoe craft / Will come and take us away.” But I walked by on a recent night and neither they nor the name Murray could be seen. And as for its most famous fan, Steve McQueen, the shoe has been entirely written out of his story. It exists today only as a curious footnote.