Linda Pugach dies at 75; disfigured by lye, she married attacker

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“It’s me and Burt against the world.”

-- Linda Pugach, 2007

With those words, Linda Pugach explained, perhaps as well as anyone could, an unfathomable chain of events.

PHOTOS: Linda Pugach | 1937 - 2013

In 1959, she was Linda Riss, a 22-year-old dark-haired beauty with a creamy complexion, a sassy mouth and curves in all the right places. She fell for a successful older man named Burton Pugach, who wined and dined her--until she found out about his wife.

Then she dumped him.

Then he hired a goon to throw lye in her face and went to prison for 14 years.

PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2013

When he got out, she married him.

The marriage dumbfounded some who knew her and many who didn’t. But it lasted almost 39 years, long enough, she once told the New York Times, to become “sort of dull, like anyone else’s life,” though clearly it wasn’t.

Pugach, who had a history of cardiac problems, died of heart failure Tuesday in a New York City hospital, said her husband, who is her sole survivor. She was 75.

Like him, she had been an only child, who grew up in less-than-ideal circumstances. Born in New York City on Feb. 23, 1937, she was raised by her mother and grandmother after her parents’ marriage fell apart.

She was 20 when Burton spotted her in a Bronx park. He wasn’t like most of the men who came on to her: He was a lawyer, had connections in the movie business, and owned a nightclub and a private plane. He sent her roses. When she left for work in the morning, he was outside, waiting to drive her in his Cadillac convertible.

“It was over my head,” she recalled in the Washington Post in 2007. “I was used to guys leaning on their car saying, ‘Hey babe, you wanna ride?’”

The courtship went on for a year--until she learned he was the married father of a 3-year-old girl. She met another man and became engaged, a development that Burton did not take well. According to the Post, he demanded that she sleep with him, marry him or suffer terrible consequences.

“If I can’t have you,” he said, “no one else will.”

On June 15, 1959, a man dressed as a messenger rang her doorbell. She expected a present—her engagement party had been held the day before—but instead she was splashed in the face with a liquid that caused a “hot, burning sensation.” She was permanently scarred and lost an eye.

Burton passed the time in prison providing legal aid to other inmates and writing letters to the woman he maimed. “Despite what I did,” one of his letters said, “you will never find a man to love you more than me.” At her behest, he began to make restitution, sending her money in regular payments.

After a period of recovery, she got on with her life the best she could. She covered her scars and a new glass eye with dark glasses, moved to Queens and rode a bus across town to a job as a receptionist. She took art classes and learned to paint. She went on dates and eventually fell in love with another man, but when she took her glasses off for him, he fled.

She was, she acknowledged, “damaged merchandise.”

When Burton came up for parole, Linda registered her objections. “I want him to come out of prison in a box,” she told the Bronx district attorney in the early 1970s, according to an account by veteran New York journalist Jimmy Breslin. Every time Burton was eligible for release, Breslin wrote in Newsday in 1997, Linda went “shrieking mad.”

But some observers, Breslin wrote, sensed that the woman doth protest too much.

One of these was Margaret Powers, a New York City police officer who had been assigned to protect Linda after the assault. They became good friends.

“I could detect there was still some interest there,” Powers, who now lives in California, recalled last week about Linda’s attitude toward Burton. Who but Burton knew her as the beautiful girl she once was? Who but the man who had so horribly wronged her would feel the obligation to make things right?

In 1974, Burton finally won his release from Attica prison. He was under orders to stay away from Linda but was determined to send her a message. He got his chance when a local TV station interviewed him. She was watching when he asked her to marry him.

With Powers’ encouragement, a mutual friend set up a meeting. “I was scared stiff it was a set-up,” Burton, 85, recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week. But Linda was there, and she said yes.

When they were married on Nov. 27, 1974, the tabloids screamed the news and TV talk shows clamored for interviews.

They were always asked: Was it love that made them do it?

For Burton, there could be only one answer. “When we got married, I didn’t have two dimes to roll together. She had more money than I did, so she didn’t marry me for my money,” the disbarred attorney, who worked as a paralegal after prison, said last week. “She married me because she loved me.”

With Linda, the explanations varied.

“In my heart, I probably do love him,” she told Geraldo Rivera after the nuptials. “I just find it hard to say the word.”

Years later, she offered another motivation.

“Marrying him has been the best revenge. I’m a ball-breaker,” she told the Washington Post in 2007 when “Crazy Love,” a documentary about her roller-coaster relationship with Burton, was released.

“They would always be arguing, in public and in private,” said director Dan Klores, who spent hours interviewing her for the film. “She would say things like: ‘Burt, he’s a weakling, I’m much tougher than he is.’ She knew how to yank his chains.”

Yet something held them together. She painted his portrait. He bought her furs. They took trips and regularly ate out at a local diner. A book about them was published in 1976 called “A Very Different Love Story,” by Barry Stainback.

When glaucoma stole the sight from her remaining eye, she grew more dependent on Burton, but still “she took care of the house. She took care of me,” he said. “The incident,” as he calls the lye attack, was behind them.

As astonishing as their marriage was, its longevity was even more unexpected.

In the early 1990s, nearly 20 years after they exchanged vows, Linda had heart surgery and spent several weeks in the hospital. During her convalescence, Burton started an affair with another woman.

It lasted five years and ended badly, with Burton on trial in 1997 for threatening to kill her. The woman testified that when she tried to end the relationship, Burton told her, “It’s 1959 all over again.”

Except that this time Linda took the stand to defend him. She called him a “wonderful and caring husband.” Convicted on one count of harassment, he spent 15 days in jail. Then he and Linda went back to being, in her words, “an old married couple.”