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- January 19, 1998
- Vol. 49
- No. 2
At a Time When His Life Seemed Sweetest, Resilient Showman Sonny Bono Dies Tragically
This Christmas had been particularly festive at the Bono household in Palm Springs, Calif. There was Sonny, 62, surrounded by friends and family, doing what he had done all his life—entertaining. Regaling his guests with insider anecdotes about life as a congressman, he told jokes—often on himself—and cooked steak à la Bono, for he had, in one of his many incarnations, been a successful restaurateur.
At one point, over dinner, his wife, Mary, 36, mother of their two children, Chesare, 9, and Chianna, 6, leaned over to Dr. Jay Roberts, a longtime friend with whom Sonny had often shared thoughts on life, family and politics. "Jay," she told him, "you'll be so proud of Sonny. Not long ago he had to make a choice. Go to a political function or attend Chesare's school play." "And?" asked Roberts. "He went to the play." Roberts was glad to hear it. "It showed that Sonny had listened during all our talks," he says. "He realized how important it is to spend time with the family." When, later, the doctor congratulated his friend on the choice he'd made, Sonny Bono just smiled.
In fact he had a lot to smile about, which makes his death on the slopes of the Heavenly Ski Resort, 55 miles south of Reno, seem all the more tragic. Finally after three unsuccessful marriages, he had found a new kind of happiness with Mary. "Sonny always made me feel like an equal partner, sharing our joys and challenges together," she told PEOPLE. His relationship with second wife Cher, in the past often rancorous, had lately become, if not friendly, at least civil. While he continued to have ideological clashes with his daughter Chastity, a gay activist with a political agenda often at odds with his own very basic conservatism, the two, in recent years especially, had grown close. And his political life seemed successful as well. When he was first elected to Congress in 1994, his arrival in Washington—where skeptics called him Sonny Bonehead—was greeted with condescension and scorn. Yet he had since established himself as a popular figure on Capitol Hill, where he was respected for his hard-work ethic and fundraising abilities and well liked as a member of the Judiciary and National Security committees. "If you're going to sum it up, he was the life of our party," says Bob Dole. "He loved people, liked politics. He felt he had accomplished a great deal in just getting here—and he had."
The Bono odyssey began in Detroit, where Salvatore Phillip Bono was born in 1935, the third child of Italian immigrant Santo, a truck driver, and Jean, a beautician, with his ticket apparently punched for obscurity. At Inglewood High School in Los Angeles, where his family moved when he was 7, young Sonny was popular, but more a clown than a student. He dropped out in 1952 and eventually took a job as a butcher's delivery boy. But he had plans. Already writing songs in his spare time, Bono wrangled a delivery route along Sunset Boulevard, where all the independent record labels were located. He told PEOPLE in 1995, "I'd have a bloody apron and stop at record companies and leave songs and get back in my truck and deliver more meat." Eventually his persistence paid off. By the early '60s, after brief gigs helping companies produce and promote artists including Little Richard and Sam Cooke, he landed a job at Phillies Records, where he worked with the now-legendary producer Phil Spector, editing tapes, noodling with sound engineering and singing background for the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers.
In 1964 he had his first taste of real success when the Searchers turned "Needles and Pins," which he cowrote with Jack Nitzsche, into a major hit. By that time, on a double date at Aldo's Italian restaurant in Hollywood, the 27-year-old Bono (at the time in the end stages of his 10-year marriage to Donna Rankin, the mother of his daughter Christy, now 38) had met a 16-year-old runaway named Cherilyn LaPiere. They had little in common: She was an exotic beauty, aloof and sharp-tongued; he a pint-size goofball with big teeth and a high, nasal voice. But they shared affection and something else: ambition. "We were like these two people with dreams," Bono said. "Cher hooked up to my dreams."
Sonny and Cher, as the world soon came to know them, hit it big in 1965, singing the song that would become their anthem, Bono's "I Got You Babe." The single sold more than 3 million copies, and their debut LP went to No. 2. Two more Top 10 hits followed that year, and with them an extravagant life style and his-and-hers nose jobs. But by 1967, after their second album flopped, the good life began to unravel. But they wed shortly after Chastity was born in 1969, and by 1971 they were back in the spotlight as the mismatched lovers gave each other carefully scripted grief on CBS's hit Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour—an adaptation of the Las Vegas act Bono had devised to replace their stalled career. But off-camera the estrangement was real. By 1972 both were taking on lovers, whom they at times brought to live in their 54-room mansion in exclusive Holmby Hills.
In 1974, Cher filed for divorce, citing involuntary servitude. "I recoiled in shock," Bono told The Washington Post in 1991. "Cher's charge was a callously legal way of saying that she had been my slave. Not my wife, my lover, my best friend, my inspiration, or the mother of our child, but my slave." The bitterness didn't end with the divorce. For years, when asked what had been the happiest time in her life, Cher would answer, "When I left Sonny." As for Bono, he felt more bereft than liberated. "I enjoyed the power of Sonny and Cher so much," Bono told PEOPLE in 1991. "That took years and years to let go of." Watching his ex-wife's star rise while he appeared on The Love Boat and struggled through a bad marriage to model Susie Coelho didn't help. But, as he had done so often before, Bono found a way back.
In 1983, tired of being a showbiz has-been, he opened Bono, a restaurant in West Hollywood. There, in 1984, he met 22-year-old University of Southern California graduate Mary Whitaker and was instantly smitten. "I didn't think I was ever gonna hook up with anyone again," he told the Los Angeles Times, "and then we hooked up and my whole life changed..." The two married in 1986 and settled in Palm Springs, where they opened another Bono. Soon afterward, frustrated by the red tape he encountered when he wanted to change the restaurant's sign, he decided on a new career: politics.
Until 1987, Bono had never even registered to vote. But in Palm Springs, his celebrity, his easy manner and his vow to bring tourism dollars back to the desert resort won him election to a four-year term as mayor. He donated at least one year's $15,000 salary to the local police antidrug program, established an international film festival, banned thong bikinis and managed to fend off a 1989 recall effort by citizens groups angered by, among other things, his decision to parlay his restored fame into a beer commercial.
But his fame was also a problem. When, in 1992, he ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate, he had trouble shucking the Sonny-and-Cher image of the airhead hippie in fur vests and bell-bottom jeans. The reaction of Bob Dole, later a Bono fan, was typical: "When I first heard he was running, I thought, Gee, they must be kidding.' " Bono lost in the Republican primary but two years later was swept into Congress in a GOP landslide. An unabashed conservative who favored a reduced capital gains tax while opposing an assault-weapons ban and an increase in the minimum wage, he struggled at first to find his place among Washington's political elite.
"I can't articulate [my positions]," he told reporters soon after taking office. "God, if I could...like these [other] guys, I would. But I guess that's something I'm going to have to learn—how to throw that articulation around."
Critics, both Democrats and Republicans, may have derided Bono as a clown, but defenders hailed him as an Everyman. "He is what the founders wanted, a citizen politician," former TV news commentator Bruce Herschensohn told the Los Angeles Times. "He doesn't pretend to know more than he knows."
In fact, by the time he was reelected in 1996, Bono had turned his awshucks manner to his advantage. "The truth is he was a very effective stand-up comedian and also an increasingly effective politician," says House Speaker Newt Gingrich, "and that was an extremely powerful combination." Bono, friends say, relished the newfound respect of his colleagues. But he didn't let it go to his head. "He was so approachable," says Ryan Roberts, a 19-year-old USC sophomore who served as Bono's congressional intern last summer. "Interns for other congressmen were amazed that I actually got to talk to the person I was working for. But he made me feel like I was part of his family from day one. Once in a while, he even had me over for dinner."
Including the recent Christmas dinner at which Bono seemed so at peace with himself. To those who shared the talk, the food and the wine, his contentment with his children and with Mary was obvious. As he told PEOPLE in 1995, "I've never loved anyone more in my life. I've never been happier." Nor had he ever found more satisfaction in every aspect of his role as a congressman. "He asked me to send him a paper I wrote about my time as an intern," says Roberts. "He wanted to read it after he got back from his ski vacation."
That, of course, was not to be. Exactly what happened two weeks after that festive dinner, high up on the Upper Orion ski run at the Heavenly Ski Resort, will remain forever a mystery. At about 1:30 p.m. he was skiing with his wife and children on a wide, intermediate slope. When, partway down, Chianna took a minor tumble, Mary and Chesare stopped to help her. Bono told Mary he was going to go down in another direction. It was the last time the family would see him alive. Heading off the groomed path and in among the trees, as skilled skiers often do, Bono apparently struck a 40-foot pine tree head-on and died instantly.
Across the country, those Bono left behind began the process of mourning. The day after his death, a long, black limo pulled up outside the family home in Palm Springs, bringing Cher, straight off the plane from London. Bono's third wife, Susie Coelho, was also en route. Already inside were Bono's daughters Chastity and Christy. "Cher walked in and went straight to Mary and Chastity and the family," says Bono's close friend Denis Pregnolato. "Everybody hugged and cried." "The feeling in the house was one of love..." said Bono spokesman Frank Cullen Jr. "Everyone was welcome."
At the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, the feeling was simply of loss. Across the hall from the office where Congressman Bono spent so much of the past few years, Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat, stood glumly outside her door. "We won't forget his freshness, his humor, his ability not to take himself too seriously but to take issues very seriously," she says. "I think he was an excellent member of Congress, one of the nicest guys. And Sonny," she said softly, "we'll miss you, Babe."
- Todd Gold,
- Jeanne Gordon,
- Lyndon Stambler,
- Elizabeth Leonard,
- Margery Sellinger.
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