Was it a love story about unfathomable forgiveness or a tale about obsession?
Few could grasp the story of Linda Pugach, who died this week at age 75. She made media headlines, blinded in 1959 by a man hired by her former lover, who would later marry her after his 14-year prison sentence for the crime.
The Pugaches, though, were never shy about talking about their lives (including a 1996 case in which his mistress of five years accused him of sexual abuse and aggravated harassment), be it on the talk show circuit, in a book, or in a 2007 Sundance documentary.
"It was a massive tabloid story," said Dan Klores, the documentarian behind "Crazy Love," who was 10 when the story broke. "In those days, there were seven papers in New York and it was all over the papers."
Years later, when a New York Times profile revisited the couple, he felt their story needed to be told onscreen. "What really interested me," Klores told Yahoo!, "was this relationship between obsession and love and what we do when we are brokenhearted, hurt, devastated — those secrets that we all hold."
Burt Pugach's five-year affair landed them back in the headlines in the 1990s, when his mistress accused him of sexual abuse and menacing. The charges — of which he was acquitted, except for one misdemeanor — returned them to the limelight, back to "Geraldo," even to meetings with a movie producer.
On Rosh Hashanah in 1956, Linda Riss met the man who would be her husband at a park after services. "Everybody went to the park to cast off their sins and start the new year," she told the Daily News, years later. He asked if she'd been to London, sent her flowers, and took her to the Copa. He also had a wife. Riss hung on for a year, then broke off the affair and started a relationship with another man.
Pugach admitted that he had stalked and threatened her. Riss complained to police, who didn't follow through on her complaints. (She would later sue the state for negligence but lose.) The day after her engagement party, a messenger showed up at her door with a package. The package was a blend of lye and soda. He threw the caustic combination in her face. Riss lost her right eye, was nearly blinded in her left, and had scars on her scalp and right cheekbone. Not long after, her fiancé left her.
Pugach denied ordering the acid attack but admitted that he had hired men to beat her. He served 14 years in prison, where he wrote letters to Riss and even sent her checks from money earned doing legal work for other inmates. When he was paroled in 1974, he sat on a park bench for a TV news interview and, looking into the camera, proposed to Riss.
Five months later, they went on a double date. Another three months later, they married.
World of fear?
Reporters and spectators have cast them in a battered victim-manipulative madman relationship. Their banter, though, echoed the amused, tolerant exchanges of long-married New York couples. "They think I'm brain-dead, and they think you're a psycho," Linda Pugach said to her husband, as a reporter dutifully recorded the exchanges. Another time she said "Why do I expose myself... ? Because I feel I have to defend what I've done. I don't look at it as though I'm a fool or a bimbo for marrying him. I love him. And we're still together."
They even joked about the crime itself. Linda Pugach, complimented for her skin, joked to a New York Times reporter, "Lye is good for the skin but bad for the vision." Did his wife hold a grudge? Burt Pugach smiled, "She doesn't throw it in my face."
The policewoman who guarded her hospital room, Margaret Powers, befriended her. When Pugach came out of prison, Riss admitted to Powers that she would call his number and then hang up. Powers encouraged the meeting, warning her to walk away if there wasn't anything between them.
"I never saw Linda cry, or act as though she felt sorry for herself," Powers told the New York Times in 2007. "I admire courage."
"I think she married Burt out of a need to be cared for," Klores says. Linda Pugach grew up in the Bronx, sheltered, and her father left the household by the time she was 5. "She lived in a world of fear well before she met Burt.... She was scared to death of intimacy."
Victim in the limelight
The couple returned to the headlines in 1996, when 70-year-old Burt Pugach faced charges filed by a 42-year-old woman who was ending their five-year affair. "She got my emotions crazy," Pugach said in a police statement. At the hearing, however, he told the judge, "I happen to love my wife."
Linda Pugach bailed him out, with a briefcase holding $50,000 in cash. She also called the shots: Burt Pugach, who represented himself, claimed to the judge he had to turn down a plea bargain because his wife had called him a "wimp." She said she wasn't forgiving him, but she showed up as a character witness and called him a "wonderful, caring husband." While her jury didn't take her testimony too much into account, the courtroom artist at the time described her as "delicious, all those curves and that hair that looks like a vanilla-chocolate soufflé and those pewter-colored fingernails."
Did she have an underlying steely resolve? Klores says that psychiatric associations who screened his documentary diagnosed her as having a narcissistic borderline personality. "And that personality," Klores explains, "goes back and forth and up and down all the time." While he never asked what she thought of their portrayal, she didn't hesitate to do interviews to promote it. "The film fulfilled their needs to rekindle that illusion of being famous."
"She was tragically victimized, obviously there's no question about that," Klores said. "She received a lot less sympathy because she married him, but if you explore why did she marry him, and take time to think through it, you have to feel for her, you know."
Linda Pugach is survived by her husband, now 85, who has told reporters that theirs was a "storybook romance."
"She died before Burt," Klores observes. "One has to ask, what kind of justice is that, or is she now at a place where she really has some peace?"
Watch the theatrical trailer for 'Crazy Love':