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MOVIES

Chemistry, caustic but binding

Unconditional love is pushed to its limits when a man, consumed, disfigures the woman he loves. A fictional pitch? Hardly. `Crazy Love' recounts the real deal.

June 03, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

PLENTY of women stay with men who have abused them -- sometimes because they are financially trapped, sometimes because they are afraid of provoking more abuse if they leave and sometimes, quite simply, because love transcends violence.

But what can account for the love story of Burt and Linda Pugach, who today, nearly half a century after his heinous crime against her, are together, bickering and laughing like any cranky couple who have been yoked for more than 30 years?

This is the issue that Dan Klores, the New York public relations man, set out to explore in his fourth documentary, "Crazy Love," which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and opens in Los Angeles on Friday.

"I think they represent everything you fear that could happen to you," said Klores, a bearded, bearish 57-year-old who co-directed the film with Fisher Stevens. "At least where I come from, the first time I had my heart broken, I was so devastated. I was 19 or 20 and there wasn't a day I didn't think about her, see her on the street, on the subway, is she gonna call me? There were times you would call and hang up. Obviously Burt went way beyond that."

In 1959, long before domestic violence was taken seriously, before stalking laws existed, Burton Pugach, an ambulance-chasing Bronx lawyer, grew obsessed with Linda Riss, a woman 10 years his junior whom he'd spotted at a local park. He wined and dined her at a nightclub he owned, introduced her to celebrities, flew her in his wobbly little plane, bought a house in Scarsdale, N.Y., to entice her into marriage and became incensed that she would not have sex with him. He even forced her to undergo a medical exam to prove she was a virgin. (She was.)

And then, she learned he was married.

Not only that he was married but that he'd forged the very divorce documents he'd offered as proof that he was free. Fed up, she left him, which is when the "if I can't have you, nobody can" harassment began.

Detectives at her local precinct refused to help. A protective order was rescinded by the court. The cops told her, sorry, lady, nothing to be done until and unless the guy does something to hurt you. (And anyway, they said, the guy's a lawyer, and who wants to tangle with a lawyer?)

"I was the only one who was aware of the danger I was in," Linda says in the documentary, "and no one else cared."

"I was gonna kill her," admits Burt on film, "... but I just couldn't do it."

Eight months after she broke up with Burt, Linda agreed to marry a man her own age. The day after celebrating their engagement, someone posing as a messenger knocked on her door. Thinking her fiance had sent her a gift, she answered, vulnerably, her hands behind her head as she fussed with a French knot.

The messenger, hired by Burt, flung the contents of a mayonnaise jar at her face. The jar was filled with lye; Linda -- raven-haired, creamy complected, dark-eyed and all of 22 years old -- was instantly blinded in one eye and maimed for life.

The press was all over the crime and the trial. Tabloid heaven. As Jimmy Breslin says in "Crazy Love": "Sensational.... That sells your papers."

After laudatory newspaper stories about her fiance's loyalty, he dumped her as soon as interest in the story waned. Another man got close, but when she removed her dark glasses, as a kind of test of his love, he fled. "I am now damaged merchandise," she recalls matter-of-factly as she recounts the story.

Years passed, she lived in near poverty, alone, partly sighted. (She would lose the blurred vision in her second eye in 1990 and is now blind.) Linda tried, unsuccessfully, to sue the police for failing to protect her.

Meanwhile, from prison, Burt continued to stalk her relentlessly, writing pious and florid declarations of undying love. He befriended attorney William Kuntsler, who interceded with Linda by phone. If he loves me so much, said Linda, why doesn't he send me any money?

Burt, who claims in the film to have reversed three murder convictions as well as represented the bank robber Willie Sutton while incarcerated in Attica state prison, began charging fellow inmates for his legal services. The first check he sent her was for $4,000. Other checks followed, and, impressed by his attempts at restitution, the parole board granted him release in 1974. He'd served 14 years. And now he was divorced.

Burt was barred by a court order from getting close to his victim, who adapted to her injuries by wearing wigs and sunglasses (and frankly, it's almost shocking how these accessories gave this physically damaged woman a glamorous air). So he proposed to her via local television, while being interviewed. Linda accepted. They wed on Nov. 27, 1974, in a civil service officiated by a judge.

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