Would you marry an ex-convict, someone convicted of assault, someone who had spent 14 years behind bars? Perhaps. But what if you had been the victim of that person’s brutality, and the attack on you had been chemicals thrown in your face, leaving you partially blind and disfigured? Would you – could you – marry the person who had done this to you? Never you say, impossible – crazy! Well, it may be hard to believe, but this is the real story of Burt and Linda Pugach, now the subject of a feature documentary called Crazy Love directed by Dan Klores. As stories go, Burt and Linda’s relationship is a weirder feast than anything the wackiest soaps or trashiest tabloids could cook up. Even Burt and Linda frequently wonder how it all happened. “It felt like it wasn’t really me,” says Burt – now 79 – in his thick New York accent. Linda, twelve years younger than Burt – is more practical: “I just got caught up in things,” she says. I imagine her shrugging indifferently at the other end of the phone.
The extraordinary story started way back in 1957 when Burt – a successful highflying young lawyer – spotted Linda sitting on a park bench in the Bronx. He was 32 and she was 20. It was lust at first sight. “I felt this tremendous physical attraction,” says Burt. “You want me to be honest, right?” he adds as an after thought. “I saw her from a distance and I said to my friend ‘I got to meet her’. So before I ever spoke to her the arrow had struck.” With bouquets of flowers and a private plane as his preferred weapons of love, Burt swung into action and before too long Linda was the girl on his arm. They attended parties and dances, mixing with the cool set of New York’s swinging fifties.
Linda soon discovered a problem. Burt was married with a young daughter. He promised to get a divorce, but when she discovered he had lied to her about the progress of the paperwork, she broke up with him and went to back to an old flame Larry, who promptly asked her to marry him.
This was a dark time for Burt, and he recalls his rapid decline into a kind of insanity. “I was unable to handle all of the disasters that were happening to me. First of all, I find out that my beautiful little daughter is severely retarded. This was too difficult for me to deal with. Then I was attacked professionally. The Bar Association formed a committee and they went through all my cases. It was garbage, of course, but I was charged with fee splitting and was about to loose my license. And then came the incident that was the straw that broke the camel’s back – I find out that Linda is engaged to Larry. During this time my personality is totally degenerating: I was drinking like a fish, I was playing a mandolin when I should have been working for clients, and I had a pet iguana – everything had gone crazy.”
Burt didn’t hold back his obsessive feelings for Linda, and tried to woo her back. On three separate occasions – at the end of 1958 and early in 1959, she went to the police looking for protection from him, even taking out a summons for harassment. On one occasion he told her that if he couldn’t have her, he would make sure that no one else would. The police told Linda that they couldn’t do anything unless an act was committed.
They didn’t have to wait long. In May 1959, Linda and Larry announced their engagement, and within a week of finding out, Burt hired a thug named Heard Harden to attack Linda. On Monday, June 15, 1959, Burt’s hireling arrived at Linda’s apartment at 8am and, posing as a messenger, stepped into the vestibule of her house and threw lye from a mayonnaise jar into her face.
Lye – sodium hydroxide – is a highly caustic chemical and is used domestically for unclogging blocked drains – such is its power to break down tissue. The attack left Linda’s eyes disfigured and her ability to see in doubt. She spent three months in hospital while the media speculated and the public raged about the identity of her attacker. Burt was arrested in October and, after a bizarre trial in which Burt – representing himself – feigned madness, he was found guilty of maiming, assault conspiracy and – for good measure – burglary. The judge didn’t hold back in sentencing. He gave Burt 30 years.
“I can’t make any sense of it,” says Burt nearly sixty years later. “It wasn’t me really – it was a destructive skeleton of everything that was left over from the trauma of my life falling apart.” He pauses for a while and then approaches the recollection from a different angle. “It was magical thinking,” he says, “I thought no one else would want her so she’ll come back to me.”
I ask Linda what she felt towards Burt at that time. As with all her responses, she is no-nonsense. “I wanted him to hang.” And there, in that simple five-word sentence, is the enigmatic heart of this story. Whilst there is something understandable about a man’s destructive obsession for a beautiful woman, what could possibly explain how that woman could spin her feelings from ‘I want him to hang’ to ‘I do.’
When I put the question to Linda – a question she must have been asked a hundred times – there’s a long pause. She has no ready answer and speaks as if she is as surprised as anyone. “Fourteen years had gone by, a quarter of a lifetime. You go about your life and do other things, nothing terribly interesting and exciting develops, and then there’s Burt again – on the television.”
Seven days after Burt was released from prison – after serving 14 years – he wangled his way onto a primetime news show. In front of a huge evening audience, he proposed to Linda. She was watching. “It was advertised all day that he was going to be on” she says, “so needless to say I wasn’t going to miss that show.” Although she was not expecting the proposal, there was something about Burt that caught her attention. “My first impression when I saw him was that he looked so good. Jail had agreed with him. Of course when I heard the proposal I said to my friends ‘the man is still nuts’. Then they said to me ‘he could his shoes under my bed anytime.”
Burt and Linda were married six months later. I press Linda again for an explanation. “I didn’t dwell on Burt when he was in prison” she says. “Out of sight, out of mind. I dated, I had interesting men in my life, but none intrigued me enough. For all I know, subconsciously I was comparing them to Burt.” She pauses a while, assessing this idea. She clearly isn’t satisfied with it. “Who knows?” There’s another pause. “I think that, in comparison, the young men I was dating didn’t come close to what Burt was all about. He can charm a snake.”
So maybe Burt’s magical thinking worked after all. I put this to him. “Maybe yeah,” he says “but there was also 14 years in prison, remember that!” And he starts to tell me all about what he did whilst he was behind bars. But that’s another bizarre story.