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Sonny Bono, Entertainer Turned Congressman,
Dies in Skiing Accident
By BERNARD WEINRAUB NYTIMES
LOS ANGELES -- Rep. Sonny Bono, whose unexpected career in Republican politics followed an equally unexpected -- and successful -- career as a singer and television star with his former wife, Cher, was killed on Monday evening when he crashed into a tree while skiing in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. He was 62 and lived in Palm Springs, Calif.
Bono was skiing with his wife, Mary Whitaker, and their two children when he left them about 1:30 p.m. to ski alone at the Heavenly Ski Rental Resort on the California-Nevada line, 55 miles south of Reno. Unaware that he had not made it down the hill, his wife, their son, Chesare, 9, and daughter, Chianna, 6, waited at the bottom of the slope. When he failed to appear after several hours, they reported him missing.
Bono's body was found by the ski patrol about 6:45 p.m. Sheriff Ron Pierini of Douglas County said Bono skied into a wooded area and hit a tree.
The sheriff said Bono died of massive head injuries. There was no evidence of drug or alcohol use, he said.
Bono's death came less than a week after Michael Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of Robert F. Kennedy, was killed when he hit a tree while playing football on a ski slope in Aspen, Colo. Michael Kennedy's uncle, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said his family was "heartbroken" at Bono's death.
Similarly, President Clinton echoed what many lawmakers, Democrats as well as Republicans, said about Bono. "His joyful entertainment of millions earned him celebrity, but in Washington he earned respect by being a witty and wise participant in policy-making processes that often seemed ponderous to the American people," Clinton said.
Bono almost prided himself on never being taken, or taking himself, very seriously -- either in his successful entertainment career, as part of the team Sonny and Cher, in the 1960s and 70s, or in his recent political career. He once admitted that he had never voted until he was 53 years of age, when he contemplated running for mayor of Palm Springs, a desert resort city of more than 40,000 people, out of anger and frustration over the red tape he faced when he wanted to put a sign on his Italian restaurant.
Bono was elected mayor in 1988 and served until 1992, when he ran unsuccessfully in the California Republican primary for a seat in the U.S. Senate that was eventually won by Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat. But he bounced back in 1994, winning his congressional seat in the Republican tide that wrested control of the House from the Democrats for the first time in 40 years.
Bono, who represented the state's 44th Congressional District -- a heavily Republican area that sprawls across the desert in Southern California -- defeated his Democratic opponent, Steve Clute, by 56 percent to 38 percent, and was re-elected in 1996.
"The last thing in the world I thought I would be is a U.S. congressman, given all the bobcat vests and Eskimo boots I used to wear," Bono told the Washington Press Club Foundation shortly after taking office in January 1995.
"I love this game," he joked to the group. "I am so pleased that we are all so dedicated to mankind --unlike show business, where there you have egomaniacs and you have power mongers and you have elitists."
It was Bono's self-deprecating style (he was the second most popular Republican fund-raiser behind House Speaker Newt Gingrich), and his casual bluntness that made him especially popular. At a Judiciary Committee session on the crime bill in 1995, Bono interrupted a colleague and complained that all they did was talk, talk, talk.
"With all due respect to lawyers, it's wonderful that you have this intricate knowledge," he said. "You break down words to the nth degree. And sometimes I find it rather disgusting. And it goes on and on."
Bono almost took pride in his lack of qualifications for Congress. "What is qualified?" he told The Los Angeles Times in 1992. "What have I been qualified for in my life? I haven't been qualified to be a mayor. I'm not qualified to be a songwriter. I'm not qualified to be a TV producer. I'm not qualified to be a successful businessman. And so, I don't know what qualified means."
At other times, Bono was even more blunt. "People underestimate me, but I've always been a stretch runner," he once told The Washington Post. "If people would take a look -- and I don't mean this arrogantly -- if they would take a look at what I've done in my life, you can't be a dummy and have the achievements I've had in my lifetime."
In Congress, Bono generally adhered to a conservative agenda, and focused on such issues as the environment, immigration and copyright questions. But unlike many of his conservative allies, Bono seemed to go out of his way to befriend stalwart liberals like Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. The two split over the issue of same-sex marriage in 1996, but Frank praised Bono for his candor and decency.
At the time Bono said he loved his daughter, Chastity Bono, a lesbian activist, and respected gay people, but could not accept the notion of gay marriage. "I'm not homophobic, I'm not a bigot, I'm not pandering to hatred," he said. "I simply can't handle it. It's nothing else."
Bono was born Salvatore Bono in Detroit on Feb. 16, 1935. His parents were impoverished Sicilian immigrants who moved to Los Angeles when he was 7. A poor student, Sonny Bono dropped out of high school and struggled to write songs while working as a waiter, a construction worker, a truck driver and a butcher's helper.
In his 20s he immersed himself in the music business as a songwriter and singer with Specialty Records, where he worked with Sam Cooke and Little Richard. Soon he teamed up with the legendary record producer Phil Specter, where he wrote songs ("You Bug Me, Baby," and "Needles and Pins") and sang background for groups like the Righteous Brothers.
The turning point of his career took place when a sloe-eyed and exotically beautiful 16-year-old named Cherilyn Sarkisian, who called herself Cher, drifted into his life. "She wanted to be an entertainer more than I've seen anybody want to be an entertainer in my life," he once said.
The team -- she was a long-haired beauty; he was short, nasal and bumbling -- made several modestly successful recordings ("Baby, Don't Go," "Just You") before creating a giant hit in June 1965 with "I Got You, Babe," which Sonny had written as an expression of their feelings for each other.
Bono divorced his first wife, Donna, shortly after he met Cher, but the two were not married until years later, after the birth of their daughter, Chastity. Bono also had a daughter, Christy, with his first wife, Donna Rankin.
It was a guest spot on the Merv Griffin Show that convinced Fred Silverman, the head of CBS programming, to turn the bickering, irreverent and outrageously clad musical and comedy team into television stars.
"The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," began as a five-week summer replacement series in August 1971. They were an immediate hit. Cher wore sequined and spectacular Bob Mackie outfits and was known for her sharp-tongued wit. He wore bell bottoms, had a droopy mustache and played the fall man. The show lasted until 1974, when the couple split up in a blaze of tabloid headlines over extramarital affairs. (Cher got the 54-room mansion, half the royalties for the duo's hits and had to pay him $750,000. Bono got a 32-room mansion.)
Their solo television efforts floundered, as well as an attempt to revive the partnership on television in 1976-77. Bono virtually dropped out of show business after that, except for a few guest spots on shows like "Fantasy Island" and "The Love Boat." He went into the restaurant business in Palm Springs, while Cher's film career flourished for awhile.
After his marriage to Cher, Bono was married to Susie Coehlo; that marriage ended in divorce in 1984.
Bono met his fourth wife, Mary Whitaker, in 1985, when she walked into a restaurant he owned on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles to celebrate her graduation from the University of Southern California. They were married a year later.
Shortly after he became a congressman, Bono acknowledged that he was overwhelmed that a poor boy from Detroit could attain fame and fortune and also serve in the House of Representatives. Asked how he would like people to think of him, Bono replied:
"As someone who is his own man, a maverick and really a person of substance like other people. Not necessarily the brilliant person, but recognize that there is substance there, you know."
|Friday, November 20, 1998 9:56 AM
Bono's Wife: Drugs Killed Sonny
Sonny Bono's widow isn't letting him rest in peace. Rep. Mary Bono tells TV Guide that the pop star-turned-congressman was a prescription drug abuser, and she believes that this led to his death in a skiing accident last January.
Mary Bono, who replaced her late husband as a California representative, tells the Nov. 28 issue of the magazine that Sonny was taking "15, 20 maybe" pills a day at the time of his death. She says the pills were prescribed by doctors for chronic back and neck problems.
"I am 100 percent convinced that is why he died," she says. "What he did showed absolute lack of judgment. That's what these pills do. They take away your thought process."
According to his autopsy results, Bono showed no signs of alcohol or drug abuse, but Mary says that Sonny had "therapeutic" levels, i.e. prescribed amounts, of Vicodin and Valium in his system. "You know, these drugs come with a warning, 'Do Not Operate Machinery,' or whatever."
Mary Bono also says the pills made her husband moody, withdrawn, and angry, causing severe problems in their marriage. "Some people think prescription drugs are harmless but doctors know they are some of the most addictive substances," said a source.
"People don't know this. They don't know the true struggle that was there," she says. "One time Cher said, 'You know, Mary, you've gotta get out of there.' She knew how bad it was. His mood swings were so hard. In the middle of the night, he would wake up and be angry about something."
It was, she says, "a very difficult 12 years of my life."
Mary Bono says she and Sonny didn't have a prenuptial agreement, so "I could have left him and done well. But I chose to stay and work it out because I truly loved him."
Singer-politician Sonny Bono, 62 Killed in Skiing Accident
Rep. Sonny Bono, half of the singing team Sonny and
Cher before entering politics and being elected to Congress, was killed in
a skiing accident near Lake Tahoe, television networks reported Tuesday.
The Douglas County, Nev., sheriff's department said Bono was reported
missing about 7 p.m. Monday night and his body was found about 2 hours
later. He was 62. The accident occurred at the Heavenly Ski Resort in the
popular skiing area around Lake Tahoe on the border of California and
Nevada. Bono, a Republican, has represented California in the House of
Representatives since 1994. Previously, he had served as the mayor of Palm
Springs, Calif. But Bono's greatest fame was as a singer with his wife
Cher in the 1960s and 1970s with such songs as "I Got You Babe." The two
later split with Cher going on to her own entertainment career and Bono
heading into politics.
Sonny Bono: Age 62
(b. Salvatore Bono, 12 February 1935,
Detroit, Michigan, d. 5 January 1998)
In 1963 Bono met, and married, Cherilyn La Pierre, better known as Cher. Her fledgling singing career was subsequently augmented by their work as a duo, firstly as Caesar And Cleo, then Sonny And Cher. In 1965 the couple enjoyed an international smash with I Got You Babe, written, arranged and produced by Bono, who resurrected solo ambitions in the wake of its success. Although Laugh At Me reached the Top 10 in the US and UK, The Revolution Kind, Sonny's disavowal of the counter-culture, failed to emulate this feat. Bono's lone album, INNER VIEWS, was an artistic and commercial disaster and he subsequently abandoned solo recordings.
Although Sonny and Cher sundered the personal partnership in 1974, they continued to host a popular television show. However, Bono later concentrated on an acting career with regular appearances on television and in several films, notably HAIRSPRAY. A registered Republican, he was voted mayor of Palm Springs in 1988, the day after his ex-wife won an Oscar for her role in MOONSTRUCK. In 1991, Bono announced his intention to run for the senate at the next election.
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