The Real-Life Soap-Opera "Crazy Love" Now A Film

Ruth La Ferla.

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

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

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

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

When they aren't swapping insults, shopping for clothes or sharing egg rolls at the local 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, which is moodily tracked in Crazy Love, a documentary that opens in Australia on November 22. Crazy love is not a condition to be found in the medical journals, but the phrase aptly describes the arc of a romance that, off and on, has riveted the American 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 mould. Burt, a lawyer who was also cock-proud of his small-time success as a filmmaker, wooed Riss with flowers and flights aboard his single-engine plane.

True, he was married, a matter of small consequence to him but naturally unsettling to Linda. Tiring of his promises to divorce his wife, she ended the affair and became engaged to someone else. Burt responded by hiring three men to throw lye (a solution of potassium hydroxide) 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, Burt nursed a fanatical ardour for Linda, 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. More headlines.

Today they live in a modest four-room apartment in Queens. Most striking about their relationship is not Linda'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, the director, Dan Klores, examines Linda's increasing isolation. Once the media furore subsided, her fiance left her. Fearing she would be regarded as a freak, she rarely emerged from behind her dark glasses. "She's never seen herself as she is," Klores says. "To her, Burt sees her as she was. She's a hostage. And she's taken on his personality."

Klores goes 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."

Earlier this month, Linda 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. Decades before the rise of reality television, the Pugaches were inviting camera crews to record their big moments. Burt proposed to Linda 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," says the columnist Jimmy Breslin, who wrote about the couple in 1997, and talks about them in the film.

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

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

"He's not telling you why," Linda returns sharply. "It was because he spoiled me, sending me $100 a week. Then the cheques stopped coming."

Burt shrugs. "I didn't really have it," he says. "And I forgot."

These exchanges take place in a living room hung haphazardly with the oil landscapes Linda 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.

The focus on presenting a tasteful appearance has survived since the late '50s, when Linda took amphetamines to whittle her plump frame into a size six. 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 says. "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 wears a champagne-tinted bouffant wig.

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

In the film Linda confides that after her attack she felt like damaged goods. She had wished him dead. But years later, a change of heart began. "I saw him on television; he never looked so good in his life," she recalls. She 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 Linda grow old, alone and blind, Margaret Powers, a New York City policewoman who had befriended her, arranged for the two to meet at Linda's apartment. Burt, 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, Linda eventually agreed to marry the man who had maimed her. Why? "It's not that complicated," she says 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 publicised trial in 1997, in which Burt defended himself against charges that he had sexually abused another woman and threatened to kill her, Linda took the stand in his defence. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail. Linda says she regrets none of it.

"Does that sound cold?" she asks, 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."

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1 comment:

Rhea said...

I just saw the film this weekend. I am surprised I had never heard of them before the film. I thought the filmmakers made a wonderful film about a strange, strange story.