'Lady And The Dale' Shows How An LA Trans Woman Almost Revolutionized The Car Industry — Before The Law Caught Up To Her
HBO's documentary series The Lady and the Dale just wrapped up over the holiday weekend, exploring the life of 1970s Los Angeles trans woman/con artist Elizabeth Carmichael. She almost revolutionized the car industry with her company, Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, and its eco-friendly Dale car... if it weren't for her criminal history creeping into her approach to business.
The series was co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker — Cammilleri told LAist about his decade of digging into Carmichael's story, along with how it brings both Carmichael and trans history to life.
He first learned about her story in 2011, when he watched a 1989 Unsolved Mysteries episode — the episode had helped lead to her arrest. He wanted to know more, but found little written about it. So he started following the trail, trying to get court transcripts from Carmichael's trial — but those records were either missing or sealed, with Cammilleri needing a court order to find out more.
"I just couldn't figure out why I couldn't find anything, and it took me years. I really got upset, because I wanted to know everything," Cammilleri said.
WHO WAS ELIZABETH CARMICHAEL?
Carmichael was known for pulling various scams under a male identity before transitioning. She served overseas in Germany, as well as moving around the country regularly. She was arrested for counterfeiting in Los Angeles in 1961 — then jumped bail and went on the run with her wife and children in 1962.
Carmichael even faked her own death when moving on from her previous identity, including shooting up her own car and leaving the bullet-riddled wreck for authorities to find. She began her transition in 1966, eventually re-emerging and going on to promote the Dale — before her past caught up with her.
Cammilleri thought early on that it might make a good screenplay, but when he found out there was another script out there that hadn't been made, he decided to go in a different direction. And even though he'd never made one before, he started filming with the aim of creating a documentary.
His goal, Cammilleri said, was to prove that there really was something to the car that Carmichael was developing — that it wasn't just another scam.
"If the car was fake, then there was no point in doing this documentary," Cammilleri said. "There's a character arc, if that car is real. Because that means that that's a person who's seeking redemption."
DOCUMENTING A TRANS WOMAN'S STORY
Not being a part of the LGBTQ community, Cammilleri worked with Zackary Drucker as his co-director, who was brought on by producer Jay Duplass and his production company. The story wasn't well-known within the LGBTQ community, according to Drucker, who says she felt that it had to do Carmichael's criminal history.
"Zackary has the lived experience of a trans woman. I'll never know that life, and there's no way I could get up to speed on that fast enough for this," Cammilleri said. "Zackary came at it being like, 'This is a trans story,' and I came at it like, 'This is a Liz story.'"
Drucker told Cammilleri that she didn't think there had ever been four hours of television devoted to a single trans person before.
Cammilleri was fascinated with her as an entrepreneur and working mother — while Drucker was fascinated with Liz as a trans woman and a trans mother, as well as what that means in trans history. Carmichael had raised five children alongside a woman who she told others was her secretary — as well as having another five children with four previous wives.
Cammilleri couldn't understand why the 15,000 pages of court documents he was going through kept referring to Carmichael as a man.
"At the time, I didn't know a lot about it. So I was like, why do they keep saying she's a man? I never understood that — she clearly lived and died as a woman," Cammilleri said. "[Zackary] helped me understand a few different things — one of them, that the trans community is widely accepted in the mob/mafia, and basically organized crime in general."
Cammilleri noted that trans women have historically found places outside of society to operate. Trans historian Susan Stryker explains in the documentary the ways that being trans may have been part of what led Carmichael into being a career criminal, both before and after her transition.
"If you're not being the person that you understand yourself to be, you don't often follow that normative life path," Stryker says in the series. "If you feel that interacting with people and institutions and the public and the government is something that, at every step, it invalidates who you are as a person, maybe you're resentful about that, and maybe you engage in more so-called 'antisocial behavior' out of those unresolved feelings that are based on your transness."
For trans women, who sometimes don't fit society's definition of what a woman should look like, it can also be hard to find work due to the discrimination they face, Stryker notes in the documentary.
"You have to make ends meet, however you're going to do it," Cammilleri said.
Carmichael struggled to find a job as a woman, before finally finding an opportunity to work in real estate. She moved on to working in marketing, where she met Dale Clifft — inventor of a three-wheeled car with low gas consumption. She worked with him to create, and market, the Dale.
CREATING AN ECO-FRIENDLY CAR ALMOST 50 YEARS AGO
The Dale was a three-wheel vehicle, whose design was meant to save fuel during the '70s oil crisis. She promised that it could deliver 70 miles to the gallon, even promoting it as a possible giveaway on The Price Is Right before they'd even created a working version of it. As it was being developed by her new Burbank auto company, utilizing the same San Fernando Valley community that had spent the past decade designing for NASA and Boeing, she would regularly make numerous other claims that the tech couldn't back up just yet.
The new 1970s version of Carmichael pretended to be a widow taking on the Detroit auto industry, while also claiming to hold engineering degrees from institutions with no record of her. All that big talk led to scrutiny from the media and the car industry.
As she refused to play by the rules, she was arrested for fraud and business code violations before the Dale was ever released to the public. Her criminal past and her previous life living as a man came to light in a time when that revelation was even less accepted than it is today.
She went on the run once more, for more than a decade, but was found living under a false identity and put on trial after that Unsolved Mysteries episode. She was sentenced and served 18 months in a men's prison, before living out her days as Liz Carmichael once more.
In his quest to tell her story, Cammilleri got hold of a scrapbook of articles from the trial, the jury foreman's notebooks — and even the blueprints for the Dale.
"Once I saw the blueprints, I was like, 'Holy crap, this is real,'" Cammilleri said.
He'd worked from the outside in, starting with the information that was publicly available before ultimately meeting and doing interviews with Carmichael's family.
"There's a picture of the Dale car that is one of the only two things that Liz kept with her as she moved from house to house," Cammilleri said.
And she was ultimately arrested in an interesting location: Dale, Texas.
While Carmichael died from cancer in 2004, the film uses interviews with her family and those who knew her, audio recordings of Carmichael, and a handcrafted animation style that breathes life into her and her wild existence.
"It allows Liz to touch every single person in the series in a very personal way, which I think gives her the most agency in her own story," Cammilleri said.
Cammilleri wants viewers to take away an understanding of the sacrifices that Carmichael made in order to survive as a trans woman. He also hopes it leads to people asking questions about how the prison system works, with the way that Carmichael's counterfeiting in the early 1960s had repercussions over and over again throughout her life.
"It's this echo," Cammilleri said. "We penalize people all the time. We make sure that they're always a criminal."
He also wanted to show how the effects even go through generations — one of her children ended up barely able to fill out a job application, due to being on the run with his parents and not going to school.
You can learn about Carmichael's full story in the documentary — all four parts of The Lady and the Dale are available on HBO Max now.