What's a little lye in the face when it's thrown in love. Crazy Love, indeed.
Published June 9, 2007

Fussing over a heap of shirts piled on an armchair in their living room, Linda Pugach turned on her husband and demanded, "When are you going to hang up these clothes?"

"One of these days," Burt Pugach drawled, causing her to sigh with infinite exasperation.

"I go ballistic when I call 'Burt' and he answers 'In a moment,' " Linda Pugach said, adding sourly, "When I want something, he would jump, you would think."

"So go ahead and think," Burt Pugach said.

When they aren't swapping insults, shopping for clothes or sharing egg rolls at a neighborhood Chinese diner, Burt and Linda Pugach busy themselves reliving for visitors their famously and darkly convoluted love affair, one that began in the late 1950s and continues to evolve to this day.

It is a love-hate relationship, moodily tracked in the documentary Crazy Love, now in limited release. (It does not yet have a Tampa Bay area opening scheduled.)

The title aptly describes the arc of a romance that, off and on, has riveted the public for decades.

In the early summer of 1959, Pugach, who was then 32, began to court Linda Riss, 21, a Bronx-reared dark-eyed beauty in the Liz Taylor mold. Pugach, a lawyer who was also cock-proud of his small-time success as a filmmaker, wooed Riss with flowers, nights out and flights aboard his single-engine plane.

He was married, a matter of small consequence to him but naturally unsettling to Riss. Tiring of his promises to divorce his wife, she ended the affair and became engaged to someone else. Pugach responded by hiring three men to throw lye in her face, leaving her disfigured and all but blind.

The crime and trial were tabloid sensations. But the Pugaches were merely at the end of Act 1. During 14 years in prison, Pugach nursed a fanatical ardor for Riss, writing her love letters in a florid hand. Eight months after he was paroled in 1974, the couple renewed their courtship, and they were soon married.

Headlines to humdrum

Today they live in a modest four-room apartment in Queens, N.Y. Most striking about their relationship is not Linda Pugach's lingering resentment, not her husband's less-than-evident remorse, and not even their mutual dependence, but the marriage's frank descent into humdrumness.

In the film, director Dan Klores examines Riss' increasing isolation after the attack. Once the initial media furor subsided, her fiance left her. Fearing she would be regarded as a freak, she rarely emerged from behind the dark glasses that cover her scars. "She's never seen herself as she is," Klores said. "To her, Burt sees her as she was. She's a hostage. And she's taken on his personality."

Klores went on, "Those obsessive thoughts and actions that come about when we are hurt, when we love, that's what I thought at first this movie was about. But what I discovered it really is about is what we do" not to be alone.

On the face of things, the Pugaches seem to have relieved the everydayness of their 33-year marriage by turning their lives into a public spectacle.

On a Sunday last month, Linda Pugach gave her husband a surprise 80th birthday party, inviting a clutch of the reporters who remain an intermittent presence in their lives.

"They hammed it up," Klores recalled, "all this lovey-dovey cooing and kissing."

"They live in the media," he added.

Decades before the rise of reality television, the Pugaches were inviting camera crews to record their big moments. Pugach proposed to Riss on television. Why the long-running fascination with this tale, a kind of seamy modern gothic?

"If you go to some high-class dinner party, I guarantee they all want to know about Pugach," said the columnist Jimmy Breslin, who wrote about the couple in 1997, and talks about them in the film. "There used to be some high-class horror - we had Poe," Breslin said, "and now there is this low-class horror. Still, it's the same commodity."

Bickering suits them

At home recently, despite or perhaps because of the presence of a reporter and photographer, the Pugaches bickered steadily. Who is going to change the light bulbs? (She will.) Who will water the plants? (He will.) Should Linda Pugach continue to smoke? (She does, hiding ashtrays in her walk-in bedroom closet.)

They even argued about what precisely rekindled their relationship after Burt Pugach was paroled from Attica. "When I came out, Linda was stalking me," he said.

"He's not telling you why," his wife returned sharply. "It was because he spoiled me, sending me $100 a week. Then the checks stopped coming."

Burt Pugach shrugged. "I didn't really have it," he said. "And I forgot."

These exchanges take place in a living room hung haphazardly with the oil landscapes Linda Pugach painted in the '70s, before she lost what remained of her sight. The room, with its two-tone shag rug, and a couple of wigs settled like lap dogs on the aubergine sofa, is a time capsule.

"This archway is my creation," Linda Pugach said, waving vaguely toward a recessed wall covered in a landscape of beech trees she painted herself. "I think it kind of works," she said, adding with a majestic sweep of her arm, "All this is a reflection of my own taste."

Ever style conscious

That focus on presenting a tasteful appearance has survived since the late '50s, when Riss took amphetamines to whittle her plump frame into a size 6.

She cultivated a dishy style, wearing capri pants, off-the-shoulder sweaters, clingy sheath dresses and jawbreaker pearls, a sexier, albeit less regal version of who she is today. "From a style perspective she is very smart," Klores said. "The thing that I know about her is that she's a dame."

Her eyes, described in the film as a milky blue, are hidden beneath one or another of the dramatic dark glasses she collects by the dozen. She wore a champagne-tinted bouffant wig.

More a latter day Estee Lauder than a Miss Havisham, Linda Pugach proudly displayed her clothes closet, whose contents she and her husband had sorted long ago by colors, one rack for blacks, one for browns, another for whites and creams. "I color-coordinate out of necessity," she said. "I hate bothering Burt. He has no patience. I can't keep saying, 'What color is this?' I'm very independent. I don't like having to ask."

Hung alongside her suits, chain belts and ruffled blouses was a collection of fur chokers she made herself from scraps of pelts. "I have to be doing something with my hands constantly," she said.

"Like punch me in the mouth," her husband interjected.

"If I could find him I would," she said.

Change of heart

In the film, Linda Pugach confides that after her attack, she "felt like damaged merchandise." At the time she wished him dead. Years later, however, she felt the stirrings of a change of heart.

"I saw him on television; he never looked so good in his life," recalled Linda Pugach, who still had limited vision at that time. "He used to be a skinny malinky - like those men in the muscle building ads in the magazines. In the can he started to weight lift. His physique was improved. And he looked good on TV."

Loath to see Riss grow old, alone and blind, Margaret Powers, a New York City policewoman who had befriended her, arranged for the two to meet at Riss' apartment.

Pugach, who works as a paralegal in Queens, was terrified. "I thought someone was there waiting for me, to kill me," he recalled. "A friend of Linda's had to spend 10 minutes showing me the apartment was empty."

Having reached a kind of wary truce with her past, Riss eventually agreed to marry the man who had maimed her. Why? "It's not that complicated," she said dryly. "Things get boring after a while. There was nothing terribly exciting in my life at the time."

Whether from choice or necessity, she remained loyal. During a widely publicized trial in 1997, in which Pugach defended himself against charges that he had sexually abused another woman and threatened to kill her, his wife took the stand in his defense. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail.

Linda Pugach maintains that she regrets none of it.

"Does that sound cold?" she asked, adding after a pause, "When somebody asks, 'What would I be doing if things were different?' Well, I would have had a slew of children already. I would probably have divorced already."

Looking back, she said: "I didn't indulge myself with thinking about things that were not going to happen. It was a lifetime ago."