In his characteristically blunt and self-deprecating manner, Sonny Bono transformed himself relatively late in his life, morphing from the shorter, homelier, masculine half of a 1960s husband-and-wife singing and acting sensation (alongside his glamorous third wife, Cher) into a respected California lawmaker and U.S. congressman. On January 5, 1998, Bono’s unusual journey was cut tragically short when he was killed in a skiing accident while on vacation with his family in South Lake Tahoe, California.
The 62-year-old Bono and his fourth wife, Mary, were visiting the Heavenly Ski Resort, located on the Nevada-California border some 55 miles south of Reno, Nevada, with their young son and daughter. The accident occurred when Bono left his family to ski alone on the afternoon of January 5. He was reported missing several hours later, and his body was found that evening. Police said Bono had skied into a wooded area and hit a tree; the cause of death was massive head injuries. Coincidentally, Bono’s death occurred less than a week after another high-profile accident killed Michael Kennedy, the son of the late U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, on the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado.
Born Salvatore Bono in Detroit on February 16, 1935, Bono moved to Los Angeles when he was seven years old. As a young adult he became a songwriter and singer at Specialty Records. He later teamed with the prominent songwriter Phil Spector and sang back-up for the Righteous Brothers. While married to his first wife, Donna Rankin, Bono met the 16-year-old Cherilyn Sarkasian; they made several recordings together, but struck gold with their 1965 mega-hit “I Got You Babe.” Bono divorced Rankin and in 1969 had a daughter, Chastity, with Cher; they later married. In August 1971, the couple’s TV show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, premiered, featuring the tall, dark-haired Cher decked out in spangled designer outfits and the mustachioed Bono playing the straight man in bell-bottom pants. The show’s run lasted until 1974, when the couple split amid rampant gossip about extramarital affairs.
A latecomer to politics (he admitted he voted for the first time at age 54), Bono got his start after he became frustrated by the bureaucratic hassle involved in erecting a new sign at the Italian restaurant he owned in Palm Springs, a city in the Southern California desert with a current population of some 40,000 residents. He was elected mayor of the city in 1988, and four years later ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for a seat in the U.S. Senate. In 1994, Bono won a seat in the House of Representatives as part of a sweeping Republican victory in the House led by Speaker Newt Gingrich. As a lawmaker, Bono stuck closely to the conservative agenda, but he was known to reach out across party lines, forming friendships with such prominent liberals as Barney Frank, an openly gay Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. When Bono and Cher’s daughter, Chastity, came out publicly as a lesbian in 1995, her father expressed his love and support, but said he could not reconcile himself to the idea of gay marriage.
Reelected in 1996, Bono continued his campaigns to extend copyright laws and repair the damage done to the Salton Sea, a giant lake in Southern California’s Colorado Desert, by large-scale salt mining operations in the region. After Bono’s death, his widow, Mary Bono, completed the remainder of her husband’s term in the House.