This story reads like a deranged Beauty and the Beast. If you look at them, Linda and Burt Pugach seem like just another couple from Queens. But theirs is far from the ordinary love story. You see, their story involves all kinds of twists and turns, involving jealousy and attempted murder. And all that happened before the couple even got married.
Linda and Burt’s love story is as remarkable as it is inconceivable. After all, it isn’t every day that you hear of a woman who, after her lover tried to blind her and got sent to prison, agreed to marry the guy. This is the kind of story you just can’t make up – one that only gets stranger and more twisted as it goes on. It’s probably why a movie was made about them…
Just a Couple of Crazy Lovers
In 2007, a documentary called Crazy Love, about Burt and Linda Pugach, came out in theaters in New York City. On the night of the premiere, the star couple was at home, getting ready and waiting for the limo to pick them up from their one-bedroom apartment in Queens.
80-year-old Burt was crawling around, looking for his cellphone, while his blind, 70-year-old wife Linda was shouting at him, “Burt! You have to dress! Now do it!” He groaned back: “Whaddya mean?!” The old bickering couple fit right in in Queens. But their story is anything but normal. A reporter from The Washington Post stood there, taking it all in.
“El Creepo” and His “Movie Star” Wife
Linda called her husband “El Creepo,” but with no trace of affectionate humor. As El Creepo and his wife entered the elevator, a neighbor told them they looked like movie stars. And they technically were – Linda with her big glasses and disco ball ring – but Burt remarked, “We’re just like anyone else.”
This is a couple who, over five decades, spawned headlines like (the original) 1959 one: “ACID BLINDS BRIDE-TO-BE.” In 1974, another one read: “LINDA, BURT WED; HE BLINDED HER.” Then, in 1997, when Linda took the stand in Burt’s defense after he was busted for threatening a mistress 27 years younger than him, the headline read “BLIND LOVE.” Yeah…
Sounds Like a Case of Long-Distance Stockholm Syndrome
As it turns out, Linda wasn’t a fan of the documentary. Why? Because it made her sound like “a broad from the Bronx,” she said with her cigarette-laced, heavily-accented voice. She may look and sound like a stereotypical granny from the Bronx, but Linda Pugach was blind (partially at first, after the attack, then fully in 1990).
Nevertheless, the landscape paintings she made before she lost her sight were exhibited in a Manhattan gallery, along with several letters Burt wrote her from prison (in which he tells her she will never find a better man). But at least they have money… lots of it.
A “Freak Act” Deserves to Be Compensated
The Pugachs got a nice $50,000 for being the subjects of Crazy Love. “We’re a freak act,” Linda stated. “And for that, I should be compensated.” Okay, so we know that she was blinded, both metaphorically and physically, by her love for Burt. But who is this guy?
The white-haired, goateed Burton Pugach was once a notable negligence attorney. Of course, he was disbarred after being convicted for soliciting the attack on his ex-girlfriend. After his 14-year sentence, he started working as a paralegal. His home office was in the dining room. Good thing they never ate at home…
One Crazy and Malicious Event, You Say
That Washington Post reporter couldn’t ignore the June 2007 edition of Playboy sitting among the stacks of legal briefs. There was also a shelf dedicated to all the copies of A Very Different Love Story, the 1976 book about their relationship.
“There’s more to Burt Pugach than what happened 50 years ago,” Burt said, speaking of himself in the third person, for some reason. “I don’t want to be defined by that one crazy and malicious event.” That’s when Linda, standing there, asked if it would be okay if she took a nap.
A Very Different Love Story
Linda Riss was 20 years old when she met Burt. She was a beautiful Bronx beauty with dark, almond-shaped eyes and pale skin. She stood out in the working-class Bronx neighborhood she grew up in. Linda was the kind of girl who liked to be wined and dined.
During a double date at the movies in 1957, one of the guys asked her if she wanted something. “Oh yeah, a pack of cigarettes,” she answered him. Joyce Guerriero, the other girl in the quartet, recalled that night…
Hey Babe, I’m a Lawyer
“I wanted to punch her,” Joyce said. “We could get our own cigarettes, but she always asked for something. She always wanted someone else to do it.” That’s just what Linda was like. As for Burt, a thin, chatty little man, he was 30 when he met Linda.
He spotted her in a park in the Bronx and started chatting her up. In their first conversation, he bragged about being a lawyer who was producing a movie in England. “It was over my head,” Linda remembered. “I was used to guys leaning on their car saying, ‘Hey babe, you wanna ride?’”
Burt, the “Ugly Duckling”
When she got home after their chance meeting in the park, a dozen roses were waiting for her. Linda was hoping to meet a Rock Hudson look-alike to have her future kids with, but Burt, she said, was more of “an ugly duckling.” And of their first meeting in the park? “I thought he was a nut,” she admitted.
Still, a law degree, a bankroll, a part-ownership of a Long Island nightclub, a Cadillac, a four-seat airplane? Cha-ching! Oh, and his unrelenting attention didn’t hurt either.
Would He Be Her Prince?
It took a while for him to grow on her. “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.’”
Linda wanted a real prince – someone to save her from her Cinderella-like backstory. Her mother was violent; her father left home when she was four; and she was sent to relatives at age five. She was just “a poor girl from the Bronx” and Burt would end up being both the prince and the villain in this twisted Bronx tale.
Oh Yeah, I Forgot to Tell You…
There was one problem, though. Burt didn’t mention that he was already married with a child. His three-year-old daughter was also severely mentally disabled. Linda did find out eventually, after which Burt showed her some phony divorce papers. The lawyer knew what he was doing…
After seeing what was perhaps the first red flag, Linda stuck around, only with newfound leverage of her own. She withheld sex until after they got married. Less than a year after they met, she got fed up. Rather than wait for her secretly married lover to propose, she looked elsewhere.
Maybe I’ll Marry Larry
Linda had her sights on another man named Larry Schwartz. She met him when she and Joyce went to Florida for a little vacation. Larry was more of the Rock Hudson type – her type – with his buff, “lantern-jawed” face.
The thing is, he didn’t have the law degree, the Cadillac, the plane, the money. He was, however, unmarried, good-looking, and ready to tie the knot. Linda and Larry were happy. Burt, on the other hand, was down in the dumps. For one, his law practice was being investigated for illegal fee-splitting.
You Have Three Options…
And now he was losing his girl? This was bad. “If I can’t have you, no one else will,” he threatened Linda. He decided to give her three choices. One: marry him. Two: have sex with him. Three: get blinded.
At this point, the red flags were at full staff and waving in the wind. Perhaps she didn’t take him seriously. Who would threaten such a thing? But, yet again, Linda stuck around. After Larry was sent to the army, she took Burt back.
Ring, Ring: Hi, It’s Your Lover’s Wife
One day, the phone rang. It was Francine, Burt’s wife. She called Linda to warn her that she would never agree to a divorce. She also told her husband’s mistress that he was a serial cheater and that they had a mentally handicapped daughter.
Linda went back to Larry, and they got engaged. Jealous Burt got suicidal and started stalking Linda. She was a little freaked out, obviously, so she reported him to the police. You can probably guess what the police did. Yup: nothing.
A Special Engagement Present
But Burt certainly did something. He paid three thugs $2,000 to send his ex-girlfriend a special kind of engagement present. At 8 a.m. on June 15, 1959, the day after Linda’s and Larry’s engagement party, the couple heard the doorbell ring.
Linda’s mother opened to door to find a man posing as a messenger. The next thing they knew, Linda felt a “hot, burning sensation all over my face.” She screamed out, “I’m blind! Get a doctor!” The “mailman” threw lye, a poison, in her face, ultimately blinding and disfiguring her.
Larry Splits; Burt Sits
Linda spent months in the hospital with bandages over her head. She underwent a series of operations. Larry, no longer her prince in shining armor, saw his fiancée’s blue, unseeing eyes, made some excuses and left.
As for Burt, he was blackmailed by his hired thugs. They ran him and his Cadillac off the road and broke his ribs- the same ribs the cops punched as they escorted him to jail. At the trial, Burt faked insanity (he reportedly popped the lenses out from his glasses and slashed his wrists).
She Wanted Him to Rot in There
“Linda, I need you! Linda, I love you! Linda, I want you!” he screamed out in court. But according to Linda, he told her, “If I can’t have you, no one else will, and when I get finished with you, no one else will want you.”
He denied having ordered the use of lye to blind Linda. “I asked one guy to find someone who would beat her up to try and get her back,” he testified. “I didn’t ask anybody to throw lye at her.” The jury wasn’t buying it.
Insanity? Nice Try
He was declared insane three times, only to have the court’s decisions reversed. He was sentenced to 30 years but only served 14. “It wasn’t long enough. I wanted him to rot there,” Linda said with a poker face to the camera (as seen in the documentary).
In prison, Burt made it his mission to get Linda to forgive him. He sought forgiveness by writing letter after letter, but Linda never answered them. Why would she? She was not fully blind at that point, but with the little sight she had in one eye, she was trying to get back on her feet.
She tried, in vain, to maintain a normal life by working as a receptionist and going to clubs at night with her friends. After Larry left her, she stayed in the dating game. Nothing proved serious, though. As soon as she lifted her sunglasses, she was exposed as “damaged merchandise” (her words).
By the time she hit her mid-30s, her friends were worried about her. No one, including Linda, wanted her to become a poor, lonely, blind old lady. Meanwhile, in prison, Burt managed to get a hold of Linda’s unlisted phone number.
Calls, Weekly Checks, and a Proposal
The letters turned to phone calls. She answered (no caller ID in those days) and asked him, “Tell me, Burt, do all the criminals telephone their victims these days?” Once she suggested to Burt that he prove his love by sending money, she started receiving a weekly check for $50.
14 years in the slammer was enough for the parole board, apparently, and Burt was released in 1974. A news reporter asked if he had anything to say to Linda. That’s when he turned to face the camera and proposed.
There’s Nothing Like a Live TV Proposal
“GET IN HERE! YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS!” Joyce, Linda’s friend, yelled out to her husband as she watched the high-profile news broadcast live. The freshly released ex-convict was proposing on live television to his victim.
“To me, she was just as beautiful as ever,” Burt told the cameras. By the time he got out, Linda was living a sad life, really. She was in a tiny Manhattan apartment and spent most of her days alone. Maybe that’s why she said yes. The unlikely couple married before the year was up.
What’s the Moral of the Story?
In a nutshell: woman meets man, man courts woman, man lies to woman about marriage and child, woman leaves man, woman finds other man, man gets revenge, man goes to jail, woman takes back man, man and woman marry.
So, what’s the moral of the story in this deranged fairytale? (Funny thing is, most fairytales are just as dark, if not darker, than this one.) Linda wasn’t so sure what her story’s big-picture meaning was. What did say, however, was that “if you make a horrible mistake, you can try and redeem yourself.”
38 Years Later…
She said that after 33 years of marriage to her dear old “Burtie.” But it doesn’t mean they lived happily ever after. After all those years, they “still kind of love each other.” Her Burtie nodded in agreement, saying he feels remorse sometimes.
Their marriage ended eventually, after 38 years, but not by choice. Linda was the first to pass, at 75, in 2013. She died of heart failure, with Burt as her only immediate next of kin. The bickering twosome never had any children.
Back in the Limelight
While they never had any kids, they did spend all their time bickering and finding their way into the limelight. Reporters visited their Rego Park apartment relatively often, and the pair appeared in newspapers or on TV to declare their “mutual devotion.”
Meanwhile, viewers at home were left picking up their jaws from the floor. They were back in the tabloids in 1997, when Burt went back to trial for charges of sexual abuse made by a woman he allegedly threatened to kill. At the trial, the disbarred lawyer represented himself.
Despite It All
Linda even testified on his behalf, telling him in court, “You’re a wonderful, caring husband.” The victim in this 1997 case? Burt’s mistress of five years, Evangeline Borja, who claimed the threats began when she tried to end their relationship.
He was convicted of harassment in the second degree and sentenced to 15 days in jail. Linda was never able to discuss her opinions on love, but she was able to stand by her man, despite it all. “Burt is my best ally; he’s my best friend; he takes care of me as no one else would.” (I mean… I guess?)
Marrying Him Was Her Sweet Revenge
When she was asked if the subject of his crime ever gets brought up, she explained that she never reminds him directly because it’s “something you don’t ever want to conjure up.” Oh, and the kicker? She said marrying him was “the best revenge. I’m a ball-breaker.”
When she learned of his affair with Borja, she didn’t turn on him. Rather, she focused her wrath on the mistress – a woman she called a “moron.” When asked why he kept a mistress for five years, Burt said, “It was there; everything was easy.”
Linda and Burt, Against the World
When asked if he had been faithful since the affair, he asked, “Can I take the Fifth?” At least the guy has a sense of humor. At the premiere of Crazy Love, as the two old lovers walked the red carpet, the cameras were all over them.
One reporter asked Linda, “Who would play you in the film? Angelina Jolie?” She replied, “Why not?” Burt chimed in, “If she gets Angelina, I get Brad.” Again, humor always helps. At the end of the screening, Linda hears herself say, “It’s me and Burt against the world.”
Burt Left His Estate to Whom?
At that point, she reached for her husband’s hand. The reporter sitting next to them couldn’t tell (it was too dark in the theater) if she dug her acrylic nails into his palm. Linda may have been the first to go, but Burt met his fate seven years later.
He died on Christmas Eve in 2020 at the age of 93. Where did all of his wealth go? Where do you think? He left his $15 million estate to his attractive female “caregiver,” who was about half his age.
Stealing From Her Dying “Patient”
It didn’t take long for the judge to freeze the funds. Burt’s friends and former colleagues accused the woman, Shamin “Sheila” Frawley, of forcing Burt to change his will after he suffered a stroke. The married 52-year-old woman allegedly withdrew food and medicine from her “patient” until he died.
But after Linda died, Burt revised his will at least five times, choosing to leave differing amounts to different friends. He reportedly left a bulk of the money to a foundation for visually-impaired people – something he set up in Linda’s honor.
She Got Greedy
In the end, nothing was left in Linda’s honor as Burt’s will was updated for the final time in October of 2020, a few months before his death, when Burt went to live in Flushing, with Frawley and her husband. If you ask his attorney, it was Frawley’s doing.
“Burt lived his entire life for Linda. I cannot imagine that under any circumstances, as incapacitated as he was, that he would even think to cut out the foundation,” Peter S. Thomas told DailyMail.com. Frawley, apparently, got greedy.
A New York City Legend
What would Linda think about it all? And what would Linda say about the fact that Frawley was the estranged wife of a gay ex-NYPD cop? It looks like Burt Pugach was simply meant to live a life in the tabloids, as even after his death, his name is still in the headlines.
The man was a “New York City legend,” and his flamboyant outfits and cars were hard to miss. Frawley may be greedy as hell, but she’s no fool. The thing is, according to Thomas, she was going to get a nice cut either way.
He Became Enchanted
Frawley’s cut of the will was a whopping $5 million. The extra ten was just one of the seven sins getting the best of her. Frawley, a mother of two, filed for uncontested divorce the same month the will was changed.
The couple reportedly grew estranged after the cop came out as gay. “What they did to this man was absolutely disgusting,” Thomas declared. Burt became “enchanted” by Frawley and her family and struck up a conversation with her in a Queens deli in 2016.
Under Her Influence
A few years later, he was living with them. Attorney Peter Gordon, who helped make Burt’s previous versions of his will, said that the beneficiaries changed suddenly after his stroke which left him paralyzed down the left side of his body.
He then moved out of his and Linda’s apartment in Rego Park to the first floor of Frawley’s home. Gordon made visits to her home and noticed that Burt, his associate of three decades, was “susceptible to undue influence in that he was isolated from his friends.”
He Called Her Mommy
He depended on her for pretty much everything, from meals to meds to cleaning himself up in the bathroom. It was a sad sight for Gordon to see his former colleague in such a state and calling his caregiver “Mommy.”
Gordon and his wife were supposed to receive $1 million from Burt’s estate. But then he learned that $15 million was being sent to Frawley’s relatives and friends. Another longtime friend of Burt’s, Samuel Jacobowitz, lost out on his share ($5 million), too.
She “Took His Life”
Jacobowitz also visited Burt while he was living at Frawley’s and noticed that Frawley stopped caring for Burt’s needs; she stopped feeding him and “took his life,” although she claimed she was just fulfilling Burt’s wishes. Of course, this was after she had his will changed.
According to the lawsuit, Burt was still living alone when he met Frawley in that Queens deli. They then allegedly formed a sexual relationship, according to the newspaper reports. At that point, she was already estranged from William Frawley. Although estranged, they were still raising their kids together.
No Shenanigans Here
The lawsuit claimed that Frawley actually forged Burt’s lawyer’s signature after he became incapacitated after his several strokes. Then, she allegedly starved him to death. “Simply said, Shamin Frawley’s conduct led to Burt Pugach’s premature demise,” the court document read.
What’s her defense? She hung up on every reporter who called her and let her husband do the talking. According to Jonathan Strauss, the Frawleys’ attorney, she “genuinely loved” Burt. Strauss said Burt trusted only her with his estate. “There’s absolutely no shenanigans here,” he said.
A Story of Obsession
Dan Klores, the one responsible for making Crazy Love, was only nine when he heard the story of Burt and Linda in the newspapers. He was young, so what he took from it was, “This was a bad man, and she was a pretty woman.”
The future filmmaker was intrigued. Fast forward 45 years and he had the idea of making a movie about those crazy lovers. The way he sees it, Crazy Love explores “obsession” and “what we feel when we feel like we can lose something.”
Back when they were alive, around the time the documentary came out, everyone was asking them why they would choose to go back to such a painful time and recount the whole story. “Fifty years, I’ve been back and forth with this story,” Linda remarked.
“It’s another lifetime. I don’t even look at it as sad. It is part of my life, and I accept it, and that’s where we’re at.” But how did she come to terms with her blindness? “Very hard” were her words of choice.
A Smart Move, Perhaps
What about the choice to not have kids? Linda said she wanted them when she was young. As for Burt’s daughter, she had died ten years before the movie about them came out. One reason he believed they shouldn’t have kids together is that “any child would probably grow up hating my guts because of what I did.”
The man has a point. As he went on a rant about people hating him, Linda interrupted him (“Are we going to be much longer with this?”) and went downstairs to get her nails done.
May they both rest in peace.