Greetings again from the darkness. Unlike our first glimpse of the shark in JAWS, we don’t have to wait long. A 1974 episode of “The Price is Right” gives us an upfront look at a 3-wheeled car known as The Dale. If you expect the fuel-efficient auto oddity to be the featured attraction of this four-part docuseries from directors Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, then you are in for quite a ride. While the history of the Dale is chronicled, this is actually the fascinating story of Elizabeth Carmichael, and how she achieved fame and notoriety – the highest highs and the lowest lows of the American Dream.
What makes her story fascinating? For starters, ‘she’ was born Jerry Dean Michael, a con man who claimed to grow up a poor farm boy in Jasonville, Indiana. Per classmates interviewed here, Jerry was neither poor, nor a farmer, but rather a middle class kid whose family ultimately relocated to Detroit, where he later joined the Army. The lies, cons, and fraud come lickety-split … so fast we can barely keep up as we blitz through his scams and his failed marriages, with at least two with kids he never saw. Not once. Lest you think this is over-hype, we also gets bits and pieces from the actual FBI file opened on Jerry Michael.
Always on the move … usually running from the law … Jerry spent time as a vacuum salesman, and then ran a small newspaper, which led to printing counterfeit money. He was often a fugitive and ran through as many names as he did jobs and homes. By 1966, Jerry Michael began presenting himself as Elizabeth Carmichael, and instructing his kids to refer to him as “mother”. Shockingly, his wife, Victoria, went along with this, and became “Aunt Victoria.” It’s an understatement to label this family and life as unconventional.
Candi Michael, one of Jerry’s daughters, is interviewed throughout the four episodes, and provides clear recaps of the many stages of her life. And what a crazy life it was. She explains, matter-of-factly, that her father became her mother, and the kids were trained to immediately stop what they were doing and hop in the car, so the family could instantly escape the latest brush with the law. The family zig-zagged across the country, never in one place very long, but often either in California or the Deep South.
The first episode, “Soldier of Fortune” is loaded with background information, and takes us through Elizabeth’s “self-transition”, as she gave herself hormone shots obtained from veterinarians. We also hear from Susan Stryker, a trans historian, who provides perspective and commentary through all episodes. The episode concludes detailing how, in the midst of a national gas crisis, Elizabeth became enamored with Dale Clifft’s new, fuel-efficient, 3-wheeled vehicle. She opened a business in Los Angeles called 20th Century Motor Car Company, and had visions of dollar signs dancing in her head.
Episode 2, “Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware” opens with Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”, and those words go a long way towards describing how Elizabeth Carmichael was approaching life and viewing herself. Of course, her thinking was twisted enough to allow her to become a marketing phenomenon in the automotive industry and she positioned her car company (with no cars to sell, mind you) as competing head to head with the Big 3 American car makers: GM, Chrysler, and Ford. What’s amazing is that Elizabeth was so good at making folks believe, that deposits came flooding in for the ‘option’ to buy a car once they rolled off the production line.
It’s at this point that we begin hearing from some of the engineers and staff that worked for her, and it’s quite obvious that this was a giant shell game. Sure, some of the employees trusted her and were striving to build the car, but being paid on Fridays with stacks of cash should have been a warning sign. This is also the time when local media began to show interest. The key local reporter was Dick Carlson (father of Tucker Carlson) and he’s interviewed for the film, explaining how they sensed the ruse, and kept digging. Things took a turn for Elizabeth on December 31, 1974 when Japanese investors arrived to watch a disastrous test drive of the Dale. After getting close to what Candi called a “normal” life, the family high-tailed it to Texas to escape California regulations (and the law).
“The Guilty Fleeth” for Episode 3 opens with Elizabeth stating, “If I can stay out of jail, I can run for President.” Normally this type of person would be impossible to understand, but we’ve had four years of exposure to something similar, so comprehension comes much easier. We see clips from news reports and hear audio recordings of Elizabeth talking. In California, folks lined up for refunds after the media reports created doubt, and the FBI tracked her down. Not long after, she faced conspiracy charges and was exposed as a man (she had not had the second surgery). This meant serving time in a men’s prison, where she was beaten. The 9 month trial was all over TV and it’s not surprising to learn that Elizabeth acted as her own attorney … before jumping bail and fleeing yet again.
Episode 4, “Celestial Bridge”, covers Elizabeth’s final years in Austin, Texas, running a flower business … right up until an 1989 episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” ended up exposing her again, and having her extradited to California to serve an 18 month jail sentence. This final episode also devotes a good deal of time to the history of transsexuals, including Rene Richards, and comes full circle as we see a bright yellow Dale car on display at the Peterson Automotive Museum. Produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, this docuseries uses stop-action animation, archival footage and photos, and interviews from those who were there to detail the bizarre life of a fascinating person. It also ties in the aspect of a close-knit family in spite of all the obstacles faced for so many years. You may have seen a 3-wheeled car, but you’ve never known a life lived like Jerry/Elizabeth.
The Four-Part Docuseries premieres January 31 on HBO and HBO MAX