January 7, 1998 in Nation/World

Sonny Bono, 62, Dies In Skiing Accident Pop Star Reinvented Himself For Politics

James Warren And Rick Kogan Chicago Tribune

For Sonny Bono, the worlds of show business and politics were one and the same. Long before his life ended Monday on a ski slope on the California-Nevada border, this unlikely but likable congressman said politics and entertainment “both have lyrics and both have a beat.”

He knew how to succeed in both worlds, though he is more likely to be remembered for his collaborative efforts with a woman named Cher than with a fellow Republican named Newt, as in House Speaker Gingrich, who said of his late friend, “I’m going to miss him as a human being in a way that transcends politics.

“This is a man who succeeded, and he succeeded inside himself,” Gingrich said. “There was so much less pretense - it was the opposite of what you think of as the Hollywood effect. He was building a real fan club here in Washington.”

Bono already had established fan clubs elsewhere, thanks in large part to his association with Cher, who reportedly was stunned at the news of his death and was flying back to Los Angeles after canceling an appearance in London where she was to open Harrods’ winter sale.

Bono died from massive head injuries suffered while skiing at the Heavenly Ski Resort in a wooded area, authorities said.

The sheriff’s department in Douglas County, Nev., said Bono did not return from a final run and was reported missing by his wife, Mary. He was found about two hours later.

“He was enjoying himself skiing in the powder between the trees and he just fell and hit a tree,” said Sgt. Lance Modispacher. “Who knows why, whether he caught an edge (of the ski) or if he lost his balance.”

As he often did, Bono was skiing with his family at the 4,800-acre resort along the California-Nevada border. At one point, his daughter fell and his wife and son stopped to help her. Bono skied on ahead.

When he did not appear at the bottom, resort officials went to the Orion ski run, an intermediate-class slope where he was last seen, and found him nearby. Modispacher said the area was not posted to prohibit skiing among the trees, although some ski runs at the resort do have “no skiing in the trees” signs.

The 62-year-old Bono was the second celebrity in less than a week to die on U.S. ski slopes. Michael Kennedy, son of the late Robert Kennedy and a behind-the-scenes political activist, was killed in a similar accident in Aspen, Colo., on New Year’s Eve. Both men were expert skiers.

Born to an impoverished family of Sicilian immigrants in Detroit on Feb. 16, 1935, Salvatore Bono began his career as a singer and songwriter in the 1960s.

He borrowed $175 in 1964 to record “Baby Don’t Go” with an exotic teenage starlet named Cherilyn LaPiere Sarkisian. They called themselves Sonny and Cher and later married, going on to record a series of hits. Beginning with “I Got You Babe” in 1965, Sonny and Cher scored 10 Top-40 singles, most of which Bono wrote.

As their recording career declined, Sonny and Cher became stars of their own top-rated television show, “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” from 1971 to 1974, in which they built a routine of Sonny being a straight man to Cher’s caustic put-downs.

Although the show’s viewers saw him as a good-natured bumbler, Bono was a sharp businessman and opened several restaurants after his marriage to Cher ended in 1974. She went on to a successful acting and singing career, ever in the spotlight.

Bono returned to that spotlight in 1988 when he successfully ran for mayor of Palm Springs. He was 53 years old and had become a registered voter for the first time the year before.

Always ambitious, he ran in the Republican primary for the special 1992 election for the U.S. Senate, finishing a distant third.

In 1994, he was elected to the U.S. House. Inevitably, he arrived with the image of well-heeled but lightweight show-business celebrity. He quickly proved both engaging and shrewd, a fairly dutiful legislator and an engaging speaker.

In what the Washington Post termed a “sometimes brilliant … ultimate outsider’s view of the political process,” Bono’s remarks at one dinner made fun of Gingrich (“If you look at Newt he’s always smiling, but then he says something to rip your head off”). He was one of the few non-lawyers on the House Judiciary Committee chaired by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and appealed to many colleagues with a confidence generally devoid of arrogance. He made sure everyone addressed him as Sonny.

At one Judiciary Committee debate on a turgid legal subject, he interjected, “Boy, it’s been flying in this room like I can’t believe.”

“We’re making laws here, not sausages,” responded an unamused Rep. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat.

During the same session, which turned into a nearly all-day and all-night legislative affair, he won the hearts of Democrats and lobbyists alike when he ordered 15 pizzas delivered and gave seven to the Democrats. As he explained to a reporter later, “I then talked to Schumer and we’ve been friends ever since.”

Over time, Bono became a much-sought fund-raising speaker for fellow Republicans, including Hyde.

“A dear, sweet man,” he said about Hyde. “We’re close. He’s very strong and religious. Stronger than I am.”

Ideologically, the Palm Springs Republican was a card-carrying member of Gingrich’s majority. He supported term limits, the line-item veto, capital-gains tax cuts and welfare reform, repealing the assault weapons ban and not raising the minimum wage.

He disliked Clinton and described him in a Tinsel Town context. “Put (Clinton) in Hollywood and Hollywood would see him as one of those guys driving a Mercedes … but with bald tires, so you know he’s faking it,” he told the Tribune in 1996.

Nevertheless, Clinton praised Bono Tuesday: “His joyful entertainment of millions earned him celebrity, but in Washington he earned respect by being a witty and wise participant in policymaking processes that often seem ponderous to the American people.”

Bono and his third wife, Mary, had a daughter, Chianna, 6, and son, Chesare, 9. He also had a child, Christine, from a marriage prior to his union with Cher. He and Cher had a daughter, Chastity, who was introduced in her infancy to the viewing public as the couple would sign off their TV program.

Now a lesbian activist, Chastity Bono said that even though she and her father differed politically on such issues as gay rights, “He was very supportive of my personal life and career and was a loving father. I will miss him greatly.”

In Palm Springs, people left flowers on Bono’s star on the town’s “Walk of Stars.” One card said simply, in reference to the 1960s Sonny and Cher hit song, “We’ll miss you Sonny. The beat goes on.”

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