Bono's wit earned respect Fellow lawmakers mourn Californian they met skeptically

January 07, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Flags flew at half-staff on Capitol Hill yesterday, where Congress -- once dubious about a colleague who was forever known as a bell-bottomed, nasal-toned pop star -- had come to embrace and admire Sonny Bono.

A familiar symbol of American pop culture, Bono died Monday in a ski accident in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

He had successfully reinvented himself from the long-haired singing star of the 1960s and '70s to businessman to, most recently, a Republican congressman from California.

Bono, 62, had just started down an intermediate slope at Heavenly Ski Resort on the Nevada-California state line Monday when he hit a tree.

Sheriff Ron Pierini of Douglas County, Nev., said Bono died immediately of massive head injuries.

Bono, an avid skier, had visited the resort for more than 20 years.

On a family vacation with his wife, Mary Whitaker, and their two children, Chianna, 6, and Chesare, 9, Bono was skiing alone at the time of the accident.

His wife reported him missing at 4: 30 p.m. Monday, and his body was found by a ski patrol team about 7 p.m. in a wooded area, not roped off and popular with expert skiers, just off the main trail.

The death of the one-time entertainer -- the doltish, self-deprecating half of the Sonny and Cher duo -- came less than a week after Michael Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was killed in a similar ski accident in Aspen, Colo.

President Clinton said he was saddened by Bono's death.

"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 seem ponderous to the American people," Clinton said.

In fact, the high school dropout who admitted he never voted until age 53 had become one of Washington's most popular figures, noted for his warm, humble manner, his humor in tense situations and his ability to take some of the hot air out of Washington life.

"Until you met him, he could be underestimated," said Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

"Once you met him, you ended up loving the guy. He brought a perspective about fame and how transitory it is -- and he did it with humor."

Popular as speaker

His humor and star quality made him a hotly sought-after Republican speaker and fund-raiser, second only to House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

And, more than two decades after his hit TV variety show on CBS, "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," he was still hounded on the street by fans and autograph-seekers, many of them youngsters who no doubt knew him from reruns on cable's "Nick at Nite."

Cher, who has said in the past that she will forever have a deep bond with her ex-husband, cut short a trip to London to return to the United States yesterday, appearing teary-eyed as she awaited her flight at Heathrow Airport.

Their adult daughter, Chastity Bono, a lesbian activist who often came to Capitol Hill to lobby for gay rights legislation her father opposed, issued a statement yesterday:

"Although my father and I differed on some issues, he was very supportive of my personal life and career and was a loving father. I will miss him greatly."

First a songwriter

Born in Detroit in 1935 to an Italian-immigrant truck driver and his young Italian-American wife, Salvatore Bono moved to California with his family as a child.

He left high school in 1952, took a job delivering meat, wrote songs in his spare time and eventually hooked up with record producer Phil Spector and the Righteous Brothers as a songwriter and singer.

In 1962, he met a lanky, long-haired, 16-year-old runaway named Cherilyn Sarkisian, and the two forged a partnership -- including marriage after Bono divorced his first wife -- that would produce 10 gold records, a hit TV show and stardom.

Their first hit, "I Got You, Babe," written by Bono, soared to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1965 and became their theme song, followed by such rock 'n' roll hits as "The Beat Goes On."

The onstage chemistry and comedy between the two -- Bono was the bumbling naif and butt of put-downs by his taller, sharp-witted wife -- were perfect for the times.

"The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," which aired on CBS from 1971 to 1974 with Cher in glitzy Bob Mackie gowns and Sonny draped in medallions and sporting a droopy mustache, became a hit.

When their marriage ended in 1974, so did the TV show and, it seemed, Bono's career.

Out of show business

Reduced to guest spots on "Fantasy Island" and "The Love Boat" after an attempt to revive the TV show in 1976-1977, Bono got out of show business and opened restaurants in California.

As a businessman, he got so frustrated with the bureaucratic red tape he encountered in trying to enlarge his Palm Springs restaurant that he decided to run for mayor of the town, a candidacy that was met with guffaws.

But his anti-government message and celebrity status were enticing, and he was elected mayor of the California resort town in 1988.

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