Call It Madness
I can’t forget the night I met you,
That’s all I’m dreaming of.
Now you call it madness,
But I call it love.
—Nat King Cole, “You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love)”
With one lucky break, I’ll make Linda mine.
—Jan and Dean, “Linda”
“All I could think of was, ‘God, I just couldn’t see.’ Was I frightened to death? It was too late to be frightened to death because I was already dead.” Remembering the moment when she had lye thrown in her eyes in 1959, Linda Riss doesn’t look especially distressed. Rather, with much of her face hidden by elaborate, pointy-tipped, jewel-encrusted sunglasses, she looks mostly composed, as if she’s told this story before.
As recounted in Crazy Love, Linda’s story is both harrowing and bizarre, and for that, also titillating, a tabloidy tale of romance gone horribly wrong. For the attack on Riss was arranged by her former boyfriend, 32-year-old lawyer Burt Pugach, so distraught over the news that she was about to marry another man that he hired thugs to exact revenge. As Riss says—and the film enhances via a New York Mirror headline (“Acid Thrower Blinds Girl”) and Esther Phillips’ “Release Me”—the attack was shocking. “The door was already open,” Riss recalls, “He had his foot in the door. He was already in the vestibule and he threw the liquid right in my face.” She ran to the bathroom, she says, to put her head under the faucet: “My face was burning.” She heard her mother and grandmother wailing in the background, Riss says, “The poor ladies were hysterical.”
Her upcoming marriage and eyesight ruined, Riss knew immediately that Pugach was to blame. They had met a couple of years earlier, when, as his friend Bob Janoff says, Burt spotted her in the Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx. The instant of discovery remains dramatic in Janoff’s mind: jamming on his brakes, Burt announced, “She’s absolutely gorgeous, I’ve got to have her.” This much is confirmed by the film’s collection of photos, the camera slowly panning and zooming to underscore the point. Linda was “always beautiful,” says her cousin Sylvia Hoffman. At the same time, living with her aunt following her parents’ divorce when she was four, “She didn’t have family security the way families project confidence into their children,” says her friend Rita Kessler. “Linda grew up with women, there was nothing in her life that could connect her with a male.”
With this observation and some other, equally cryptic memories of Burt’s family (his mother was, he says “terribly doting… Until I was about nine or 10, she bathed me” and oh yes, she also beat him severely), Crazy Love lays out a general pop psychology for its protagonists. Focused primarily on the sensational story, and more to the point, the process of making it sensational, film is less biographical than impressionistic. Its details—shots of sidewalk shoppers and Burt’s powder blue Caddy, snatches of “Linda,” the song Pugach instructed his nightclub’s band to play each night the went for dinner—are telling but briefly noted, setting a scene before the film presses ahead with the plot, which is, admittedly, increasingly fantastic.
When Linda learns that her boyfriend is already married (snapshots show Francine, reportedly fierce to hang onto the marriage despite the fact that she knew her husband cheated regularly), she breaks off the romance. She meets Larry on vacation in Florida, re-meets him when he gets out of the Army, then gets engaged. And that, she says, “was my undoing. The minute I accepted the ring and I got engaged, that’s when Burt went ballistic completely, that’s when he lost it.” As he puts it, his first inclination was to kill the fiancé, but, finding himself unable to do that (“It’s not so easy to shoot a person”), he hires a black man, Al Newkirk, to handle Linda. Introduced in mug shots, Newkirk in turn hires two other associates to commit the lye assault; when all three were arrested, they confess and accuse their employer.
While this much of the story is grisly and cautionary, what follows is sensational in the most egregious sense. Following his arrest, conviction, and 14 years in prison, Pugach emerges from prison a not-so-much-changed man. Though he insists that he’s sorry for what he’s done, he and Linda, who not only takes him back but also marries him. On one level, this event serves as a punchline, trumpeted in 1974 tabloid headlines and the cover of People magazine, and trotted out for talk shows ranging from Mike Douglas to Joe Franklin.
The couple appears in these interviews and in the now-duo interview in Flores’ movie, as more or less content with their lot. Almost stranger than their relationship, however, is the film’s recollection of their moment, which produced their “crazy love.” As astonishing and disturbing as the story’s many participants appear, Crazy Love doesn’t judge its lovers so much as it contextualizes them. Casual and sometimes “colorful” observations by interviewees suggest that both Linda and Burt engendered by a particular, complicated environment. It’s not quite the “‘50s” in the usual nostalgic sense. Linda’s friends include “Margie,” the police woman assigned to guard her during the trial who became “one of the girls”: they defend her and accept her choice to “go back” with the man they believe to be a monster. Likewise, Burt’s associates understand he’s unstable (he was committed after his arrest, then diagnosed as fit to stand trial), but also consider him one of their own. Janoff laughingly remembers advising Pugach, “The only way you’re gonna get out of this is to hire somebody else to kill those two niggers.”
The film briefly notes that Pugach, who made something of a name for himself in prison by appealing and winning cases for fellow inmates, was at Attica during the 1971 riot. As he recalls, over archival footage, “Black Muslims carried me to the gate and there’s no doubt they saved my life in the yard.” During this period, he met William Kuntsler, who would go on—however improbably—to convince Linda to communicate with Pugach on his release, because he “really loved her.” (Looking back, she dryly expresses some surprise that Kuntsler called her.)
The film is hardly celebratory, but it is weirdly energetic and occasionally exhilarating. This even as the apparent love story remains deeply disturbing. Riss, the film implies, felt as if her disfiguration made her an unlikely partner for any other man (her fiancé left her shortly after her hospitalization). At the same time, it makes her, possibly, a deeply disquieting wife for Burt—at least as imagined from outside the marriage. As Joyce Gurriero, a friend of Linda’s puts it, “He sees what he did to her every single day. I don’t know if it’s a joy or a punishment.”