There is a nifty little four part documentary series on HBO called The Lady and The Dale.
It is about Elizabeth Carmichael, founder of 20th Century Motor Car Company, the maker of The Dale, a three wheeled auto that she proclaimed would get 70 miles to the gallon of gas. When the company was founded in 1973 at the height of the Arab Oil Embargo, an assertion that a car could get 70 miles to the gallon had suckers…er…I mean potential buyers lined up outside her San Fernando Valley showroom/offices.
I ought to know. I saw them lined up when I delivered office supplies to 20th Century Motor Car.
My family owned an office supply company, Crest Stationers, “The Biggest Clip Joint In The Valley” as my father liked to proclaim. Summers I would work there making deliveries, riding around Los Angeles with a driver who might have still had one or two teeth left. We’d pull up in front of the customer’s business, I’d jump out, grab the boxes from the back and shoot into the office while he kept the van running so we could take off as soon as I ran out with the signed delivery slip.
I never saw a car or Elizabeth Carmichael, but then again I wouldn’t have paid much attention if I did. It was easy in, easy out, and as far as I was concerned just another boring business office. That was as opposed to the warehouses with the flimsy wall separating the reception area from the specialty movie studio in the back. What can I say, I was a teenager and it was the mid 1970’s in the San Fernando Valley. PT Anderson made a documentary about those days.
Getting back to this documentary, as you might have guessed it was all a scam. There was a prototype car but no others were ever built, this despite the fact that the men she hired to build it were dedicated to the project and wanted it to succeed even when they stopped getting paid. There was immense hype over the car, but none were ever delivered despite Liz having collected $3,000,000 in deposits for cars and dealerships. And one day the entire house of car(d)s came tumbling down.
The money should have gone into an escrow account. Instead it was used to fund the company. Or perhaps it went somewhere else. In either case that’s securities fraud. The Feds take a rather dim view of that. Not to mention that a little investigating into the background of Elizabeth Carmichael turned up a rather interesting tidbit.
Elizabeth Carmichael was a fugitive wanted for counterfeiting. She might have thought she could get away with it since that charge had been under her original name.
Jerry Dean Michael
Elizabeth Carmichael was a transsexual, what we now call transgender, and for a short period of time she was probably the most famous trans woman in the world. That time was not however when she was promoting the car. It was after she got arrested and was on trial.
Now this is where our antagonist, our Inspector Javert, comes into this drama, the investigative reporter who first broke the case. He was a local KABC TV reporter named Dick Carlson. If you lived in LA you might remember him from those days. He was the reporter whose stories always got the breathless plug during Marcus Welby M.D. that ended with the admonition of “Film at 11”.
This story came along at a unique time in local TV news. “If it bleeds it leads” was morphing into “bring on the freak show”. Journalistic standards were loosening in the scrum for ratings that was local news. And in the mid 1970’s there was nothing more freaky than a man who openly lived as a woman. Add in this person was a scam artist and 26 news reports on this story later Dick Carlson was the king of local Los Angeles TV news.
After she was found guilty and while she was awaiting sentencing Liz Carmichael took off. Fled. Went back to her ways as a fugitive. No one knew where she was. Dick Carlson suddenly found his prized story, which had been about to wrap up, reinvigorated. The hunt was on!
His hunt at one point took him to La Jolla California, just down the road from Los Angeles. Actually it wasn’t so much his hunt but the fact his son was playing in a tennis tournament down there and he went to watch. But while he was waiting for his son to play he watched a women’s match and one of the participants looked familiar. So familiar in fact that he went to one of the tournament organizers and said “That woman’s a man”.
Was it Liz Carmichael? No, but it was a trans woman who was minding her own business, just looking to have some fun playing tennis.
And that’s how the world came to know Renee Richards.
Dick Carlson was making a career of outing trans women.
Meanwhile Liz was still on the run. She was caught in Texas eight years later after an episode of Unsolved Mysteries alerted her new neighbors to her status. Arrested and returned to LA she was sentenced to prison (mens) where she spent 30 months before being released.
The story is fascinating, the documentary is well made (I especially liked the collage animations used), but I have a problem with it’s conclusion. The filmmakers make Carmichael out to be a heroine, a proud trans woman who fought the system but was ultimately beaten down by it. No she wasn’t, she was a con artist and rightly deserved to spend time in prison. Her con was not that she was “passing herself off as a woman” it was that she stole money from people by promising something she knew she couldn’t deliver. Man, woman, or trans, that is wrong.
By all means celebrate those transgenders who endured ridicule to raise the profile of their tribe. Celebrate the ones whose courage to be themselves was and continues to be a principled stand in the face of convention and societal norms. Just don’t celebrate a criminal who stole not just money but hope from the people who worked for her, trusted her, and believed in her.
Oh and Dick Carlson? He got in good with the folks who bankrolled a former California governor to run for president. When that guy was elected part of the payback was that Dick Carlson became the head of the Voice of America. Then he was president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Then ambassador to the Seychelles. And his son (not the tennis player) who ironically shares a name with another famous failed auto, ended up following in his dad’s footsteps and doing his part to destroy the integrity of journalism in America.