June 1959. An affluent, newly divorced New York lawyer, Burt Pugach, 32, pays a thug $2,000 to teach his ex-girlfriend Linda Riss, 22, a lesson on the day after her engagement to another man. The assailant goes to the woman's Bronx apartment and rings the doorbell. He tells her mother he has a gift. As Linda rushes toward him, he splashes her face with lye. It feels like water at first, then like fire. Linda shrieks, "I'm blind! Get a doctor!"
1959-1974. The lye thrower serves 15 years in prison. Burt Pugach is disbarred and does 14 years. His ex-wife remarries. Linda Riss loses her right eye and is legally blind in her left. She remains single; her fiancé broke their engagement soon after the attack.
Postscript, 1974: Linda and Burt marry—each other.
When Linda Pugach called her mother after the civil ceremony, Bertha Riss asked incredulously, "How could you marry that bum?" The two principals in one of the nation's most sensational crimes of passion try to answer such questions in their bizarre book, A Very Different Love Story
, published this week.
Linda curls up in a chair in their comfortable one-bedroom apartment in Queens, N.Y. and says, "You would have to walk a mile in my shoes to really understand. I went from hating him, to wanting revenge, to fearing what he would do when he got out of prison, to not thinking of him. After he was paroled and didn't bother me, I thought, 'Well, he found somebody else,' and I was jealous."
Linda, now 39, may become totally blind. She needs weekly eye treatments that cost $50 to $75 and she rarely goes out alone. "I can't have an operation [like a cornea transplant] because there is so much wrong with my eye," she says. "It would fall apart on the table." Linda (but not Burt) will share equally with writer Berry Stainback in profits from the book and any subsequent film. "I'm hoping," she says, "that it will give us some sort of financial security."
To Burt the worst part of doing the book was reliving the crime. "I don't know how I ever committed it," he says. "Something drove me to destruction." He was declared insane at the time by several psychiatrists.
In the two years of his marriage to Linda, Burt has won over his fiercest adversary: his mother-in-law. "I now think Linda did the best thing in the world," says Bertha Riss, 75, who paid $30,000 in medical bills for her only child. Bertha, a widow, works in a Manhattan china repair shop. "Burt changed like night and day," she says. "What happiness can a girl have who can't see—who would want her? He could have gone and married another girl. He was a gentleman."
It was, in fact, Linda's fear that "some other girl was going to grab him up" that persuaded her to accept Burt's proposal. He first asked her to marry him shortly after his release from Attica prison, on a New York TV news show. His parole board had forbidden him to see Linda, but he kept in touch with her, mainly through her attorney. The Pugaches, who seem to be happily married (Linda: "We're typical, normal, average"), are now campaigning to get Burt's law license back. "This act occurred almost 20 years ago," says Pugach. "Society is punishing my wife by denying me my license."
Burt, now 49, has to work 60 to 70 hours a week as a paralegal assistant for several law firms to earn a middle-class living. Born in the Bronx to a lower-middle-class couple, he graduated from Brooklyn Law School cum laude in 1950 and built up a $70,000-a-year practice. He married a schoolteacher in 1951, had a retarded daughter and began playing around. ("I had dozens of girlfriends before Linda, but I've reformed," says Burt.) He met Linda, a receptionist, in a Bronx park in 1957. For a year Burt conned her into believing he was suing for divorce. He finally got one, but it was too late. When Linda rejected him and became engaged to another man, Pugach decided "to put her in a condition where nobody would want her." After she recovered from the burns Linda dated a string of men, but friends say her life was lonely. Working as a receptionist, she came home to a small studio and because of her vision was unusually dependent on the kindness of others.
She is still insecure and shy and dreads the prospect of the TV interviews that publication of her book will require. "I don't know what I'll say to them," she gasps. She stays a trim 130 pounds; her skin is clear (except for a small hairline scar from the attack), and she wears wigs to avoid "living in beauty parlors."
At home the Pugaches have a cleaning woman, but, says Linda, "Burt has to do a lot of the other work," including shopping and neighborhood errands. They go out usually once a week with friends. "Linda and Burt live for each other," says Linda's chum Rita Kessler. "They would both like to undo whatever damage they can."
While discussing their ordeal, Burt watches Linda go into the bathroom to put drops in her eye. "It's amazing," he says quietly, "absolutely amazing, how she stood up under this. She's the most courageous person I've ever met in my life. And she's always bubbling. I guess she always was. That's why I fell in love with her."