By Steve Mosco
Linda Riss Pugach, a Forest Hills woman whose story of lust, betrayal, disfigurement and eventual love captivated the city and became the subject of a 2007 documentary film, died Jan. 22 of heart failure at the age of 75.
In 1959, the dark-haired, 22-year-old beauty fell for and married a successful older man named Burton Pugach. When the romance soured and Riss tried to move on, Pugach hired a goon to put a little fear into the young woman.
The goon accomplished that and more, as the assailant splashed lye in Riss’ face, permanently blinding her. Pugach received 14 years in prison for his involvement in the crime and was eventually released in 1974.
But instead of moving on with her life, Riss forgave Pugach for the attack and her disfigurement. She also married him.
Upon his release from prison, Pugach gave a television interview during which he proposed to Riss, who then reached out and accepted his hand in marriage.
In 1974, The New York Times called the attack on Riss “one of the most celebrated crimes of passion in New York history.” A book about the couple, “A Very Different Love Story,” by Berry Stainback, was published in 1976. The infamous crime and ensuing love story was also detailed in the 2007 documentary film “Crazy Love.”
Riss was born in the Bronx on Feb. 23, 1937. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother, her grandmother and an aunt raised her. She graduated from high school in the Bronx.
The attack, in June 1959, scarred her face and left her almost completely blind. Over time, she lost what sight remained. To the end of her life, large dark glasses framed her face.
The couple returned to the headlines in 1997, when Pugach was accused of making threats to a woman similar to the threats he was accused of making to Riss in 1959. He was accused of harassing a lover after the woman tried to end their five-year affair.
His wife took the stand and testified that Pugach was a good man and not a criminal, but simply an adulterer.
In recently published reports, Pugach said his wife went into Long Island Jewish Hospital in Forest Hills Dec. 26, two days before they had scheduled a trip to Florida.
Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4546.