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'It's me and Burt against the world'

NEW YORK -- The limo is on the way and 80-year-old Burton Pugach is crawling on the living room floor, searching for his cellphone.

"Burt! You have to dress! Now do it!" his wife, Linda, 70, shouts from the hall.

"Whaddya mean?!" Pugach roars back.

She groans.

He finds the phone beneath a chair, then disappears into the bedroom. She complains about what a slob he is. He has turned the kitchen into his filing cabinet, stuffing his legal files into the cupboards above and below the sink.

"El Creepo," she calls him with the slightest trace of affection.

Linda and Burt Pugach, just another bickering couple from Queens. Except for these unavoidable facts: Nearly 50 years ago, after Linda spurned him and became engaged to another man, a jury convicted Burt, a lawyer, of hiring a thug to throw lye in her face.

The attack blinded her and sent him to jail. When he got out 14 years later, Burt proposed again. Linda accepted.

Now they're going to the premiere of "Crazy Love," a documentary about their journey, as remarkable as it is incomprehensible. The film opened in Boston yesterday.

"You look like movie stars," a neighbor says as they ride the elevator to the lobby. Linda is wearing oversize black sunglasses and a white pantsuit. Her diamond ring looks like a glittering disco ball.

"We're just like anyone else," Burt replies, leading his wife to the limo.

"Is it a stretch?" Linda asks. She smiles when her husband assures her that it is.

In the annals of notorious New York, that same infernal breeding ground of Donald and Ivana, Woody and Mia, and that lug of a Lothario named Joey Buttafuoco, Linda and Burt Pugach occupy haunted terrain all their own.

Every twist of their five-decade saga has inspired a new burst of headlines, from the original 1959 "ACID BLINDS BRIDE-TO-BE" to the 1974 "LINDA, BURT WED; HE BLINDED HER." In 1997, "BLIND LOVE" was the headline when Linda took the stand in Burt's defense after he was arrested for threatening a mistress 27 years his junior.

"We're used to depravity in this city, but this is going one [expletive] step forward," says Jimmy Breslin, perhaps New York's most prodigious chronicler of its darker edges. "No one is making anything up, I'm telling you. How could you make this up?"

"Crazy Love" has generated favorable notices and was nominated for a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, where Linda and Burt meandered about in matching white minks. But the publicity demands can be a strain.

"Everybody's up my backside," she grouses in the one-bedroom apartment the Pugaches have shared since their honeymoon. "I'm going to die before it dies."

Her cigarette-coated voice is straight out of a 1940s potboiler, as New York as a pastrami on rye. She's all "fella" and "dame" and "booze." But she refuses to admit to enjoying the film, mostly because she says it makes her sound like "a broad from the Bronx."

Not that there aren't certain benefits. The screenings, the photo shoots, the reporters -- they all spice up a routine of yakking on the phone, knitting, taking a yoga class, going to the doctor, and retreating to her bedroom closet for a smoke.

Her paintings -- landscapes she rendered before completely losing her sight 17 years ago -- will be exhibited at a Manhattan gallery, along with the fevered letters Burt wrote her from prison ("Despite what I did, you will never find a man to love you more than me").

And there's money. The Pugaches got $50,000 for being in the documentary and could earn more if director Dan Klores turns their story into a feature film.

"We're a freak act," Linda says. "And for that I should be compensated."

Her white-haired, goateed husband is slumped in the chair across from her. Once a prominent negligence attorney, Burt was disbarred after his conviction and has worked as a paralegal since leaving prison.

His office is in the space where the dining room would be if the Pugaches ate at home. The stacks of legal briefs can't hide the June edition of Playboy. A shelf is lined with two-dozen books, half of them copies of "A Very Different Love Story," the 1976 account of their relationship that includes details about the first time they had sex after Burt left prison ("He was great!" Linda told a friend).

Burt hopes the film "humanizes" him, the maiming of his wife notwithstanding.

"There's more to Burt Pugach than what happened 50 years ago," he says. "I don't want to be defined by that one crazy and malicious event."

At that, his wife stands and sighs.

"Do you mind if I take a nap?" she asks.

A poor girl from the Bronx

Her friends still talk about how beautiful she was, her dark almond eyes and Snow White skin setting her apart in the working-class Bronx neighborhood where she grew up. Always, they say, Linda Riss liked to be waited on.

"We were on a double date at the movies, and one of the guys says, 'Do you want something?' and she says, 'Oh yeah, a pack of cigarettes,' " recalls Joyce Guerriero. "I wanted to punch her. We could get our own cigarettes, but she always asked for something. She always wanted someone else to do it."

Burt Pugach spotted her in 1957 in a Bronx park. He boasted about being a lawyer and producing a movie in England. "It was over my head," she recalls. "I was used to guys leaning on their car saying, 'Hey babe, you wanna ride?' "

A dozen roses awaited her when she got home.

At 20, Linda hoped to marry a Rock Hudson look-alike and have kids. Burt, she says, was "an ugly duckling." But she was seduced by his law degree, his bankroll, his part-ownership of a Long Island nightclub, his powder-blue Cadillac, his four-seat airplane, his unrelenting attention.

"I was just a poor girl from the Bronx," she says. "Everywhere I turned, there was Burt. He'd be in front of my house early in the morning, when I was going to work. And I thought, 'What the hell, it's better than taking a bus.' "

Burt failed to mention he was married and the father of a severely retarded 3-year-old girl. When Linda found out, he showed her bogus divorce papers. She refused sex until after their march down the aisle. Nearly a year after they met, she tired of waiting and fell for another man, Larry Schwartz.

Burt was devastated. His law practice was the target of an investigation for illegal fee-splitting, and now he was losing his girl. "If I can't have you, no one else will," he warned her, before giving her three choices, the first two being marriage or sex with him. The third was being blinded. She complained to the police, who told her they were powerless.

Burt paid three men $2,000 to carry out his revenge. At 8 a.m. on June 15, 1959, the morning after Linda's engagement party, a man posing as a messenger rang the doorbell. Her mother answered, and in the next instant Linda felt "a hot, burning sensation all over my face."

"I'm blind!" she screamed. "Get a doctor!"

In prison, Burt sought forgiveness in letter after letter to Linda, all of them unanswered. She still had sight in one eye, and worked as a receptionist. Schwartz broke up with her after the attack. She dated, though anything serious typically ended once she lifted her sunglasses to reveal that she was "damaged merchandise," as she describes herself.

From prison, Burt obtained Linda's unlisted phone number and began calling. "Tell me, Burt, do all the criminals telephone their victims these days?" she asked. She suggested that he prove his concern by sending money. A check for $50 began arriving every week.

When the parole board released Burt, a TV reporter asked if he had anything to say to Linda. He turned to the camera and proposed marriage.

"Get in here! You won't believe this!" Guerriero recalls shouting to her husband.

Still kind of in love

Linda Pugach isn't sure about her story's larger meaning, except that "if you make a horrible mistake, you can try and redeem yourself. We're married 33 years and we're still together, and still kind of love each other. Right, Burtie?"

He nods. Says he regularly feels remorse.

"Linda is one of the finest artists. Her paintings are reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh," Burt says. "When I think of someone putting out the eyes of Vincent van Gogh -- the magnitude of the damage you've done to the culture, that's what I did. It becomes so intense I have to almost live in denial."

To this day, Linda says, she has difficulty discussing love. She's on firmer ground citing the reasons she married her husband, including that a fortune - teller predicted she'd reunite with a man who had done her harm.

"Burt is my best ally, he's my best friend, he takes care of me as no one else would," she says. "I fall asleep and forget to take my medication -- he's there."

She never reminds him directly about his crime, she says, because "it's only going to hurt. It's something you don't ever want to conjure up." Besides, "marrying him has been the best revenge." She testified Burt was a "wonderful, caring husband" when he went on trial after his 1996 arrest for sexually abusing and threatening to kill a woman with whom he'd had a five-year affair. The threats began, Evangeline Borja alleged, when she tried to end their relationship.

The jury acquitted Burt of the top charges but convicted him of second-degree harassment.

Asked if he has been faithful since the affair, he says, "Can I take the Fifth?"

No psychotherapy for them
In their limo on the night of the movie premiere, the Pugaches are talking of their disdain for psychotherapy.

"We don't have any problems," says Burt in a tan Hugo Boss suit, the pants of which he has neglected to zip. "Why should we go? So maybe we can have some?"

Linda snorts: "If I'm gonna tell someone my story, they gotta pay me."

As they pull up to the theater, a phalanx of photographers and television crews lines the red carpet.

"Over here!" the photographers shout. "Burt! . . . BURT! . . . To the left! . . . LEFT!"

Linda smiles.

"That's it, honey!"

A television reporter asks, "Who would play you in the film? Angelina Jolie?"

"Why not?" Linda answers.

"If she gets Angelina, I get Brad," Burt insists.

They slide into the last row as the film begins. When Linda is on screen recounting the attack, Burt rubs his eyes. She chews gum, the light from the screen reflecting off her sunglasses.

"I want popcorn," she declares a few moments later.

At the film's conclusion, when she hears herself say, "It's me and Burt against the world," Linda reaches for her husband's hand.

It's too dark to see if she digs her nails into his palm.