Sonny Bono Recalled With Joy and Tears
In a tribute to his incongruous life, congressman Sonny Bono, who entered the public eye in a bobcat vest and matching boots more than 30 years ago, was buried Friday with a 21-gun military salute and a passionate eulogy by his former wife and partner, Cher.
“This is probably the most important thing I have ever done in my life,” Cher told a filled church, choking back tears. “And I know he’s somewhere, loving this.”
Sonny, she said, sometimes sobbing, was “the most unforgettable character I ever met,” the genius behind their 1960s and ‘70s singing duo and comedy act in which he allowed himself to take her sharp-tongued barbs.
“He knew what was right for us,” she said. “He wanted to make people laugh so much, he had the confidence to be the butt of the joke--because he created the joke.”
Cher followed Gov. Pete Wilson, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and political mentor Bruce Herschensohn in paying tribute to Bono, who was killed Monday in a skiing accident at South Lake Tahoe.
The funeral Mass was celebrated at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, which was so filled by congressional colleagues, entertainment industry executives and other associates that only about 50 of the 1,100 seats were offered to the public.
Others in attendance included former President Gerald Ford, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt on behalf of the Clinton administration, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Despite a steady, light rain, about 2,500 people stood outside the church during the 90-minute service, and hundreds more lined four miles of road, throwing flowers at the motorcade as it headed for the cemetery in neighboring Cathedral City.
There, the rain stopped just as Bono’s mahogany casket was taken from the hearse.
As at the church, the first row of graveside seats were occupied by his mother, Jean; his widow, Mary; their two children, son Chesare, 9, and daughter Chianna, 6; Cher; Chastity Bono, Sonny’s daughter with Cher; Susie Coelho, Bono’s third wife, and Christy Bono, his daughter from his first marriage, to Donna Rankin.
Because of his service to Congress, to which he was elected in 1994, Bono was accorded military honors. Three quick volleys from seven marksmen were followed by Taps, and then Mary Bono moved toward a fountain next to the grave site and released a single white dove.
The bird merely fluttered back to the ground, causing muted laughter, and Mary Bono held out her arms in oh-well fashion before other doves were released, taking off above the cemetery’s carob, palm and olive trees.
Afterward, she and her two children each placed a red rose on the coffin, and she bent over and kissed it before departing. Others, including Cher, did the same.
The service began 30 minutes late and, to the disappointment of those out front, most of the dignitaries and family entered privately by a side door.
Wilson, in the first eulogy, said Bono “would have looked out over the audience and asked, ‘Who invited all the lawyers?’ ”
He called Bono, who once considered running for the governorship, “California’s gift to Congress and the country. . . . He didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
Bono’s only enemies, Wilson said, “were pomp, pretentiousness and legalese. He often said what the rest of us were thinking--but didn’t have the nerve to ask.”
“Californians love Sonny because he was a character--and he had character. Thanks, dear loyal and generous friend, for the love and the laughter, and the lesson your life teaches about America. We will miss you, Sonny, from California to Washington.”
Gingrich, who welcomed Bono to Washington as part of his class of GOP freshmen in 1994, said those who initially did not take Bono seriously soon found him to be a person of “intelligence and guile.”
Part of Bono’s success, Gingrich said, was his ability to make others feel more important than him.
He told the oft-repeated story of how Bono decided to enter public life--winning election as mayor of Palm Springs in 1988 because he was frustrated with bureaucrats and wanted to become their boss.
As the church filled with laughter, Gingrich added, to still more laughter: “That may be amusing to you, but as speaker of the House, every time he came into my office. . . .”
Herschensohn, who defeated Bono in the 1992 Republican primary for U.S. Senate--only to become one of his strongest supporters--praised Bono for his “childlike innocence and ancient wisdom.”
“He had a broad smile that would make anybody surrender,” Herschensohn said, his voice cracking. “He arrived in Washington unimpressed with celebrities because he was one--and he knew what it meant, and what it didn’t mean.”
He concluded: “His soul fills this place, and it is all over Capitol Hill. Those in the future who choose political life will be more fortunate than those who sought it in the past, because if they choose--and they should--they’ll be able to stand on the shoulders of his soul and from that height, be able to see public service in a new and brilliant light.”
Cher brought the mourners back full circle, to her and Bono’s unique entertainment partnership. And for all the years she teased, mocked and ridiculed her former husband, on this day she threw all the credit his way for the impact they had.
Apologizing for having to refer to notes--there was so much she could say, and she needed to organize her thoughts, she said--Cher seemed concerned that her remarks might seem manufactured. But her tears revealed her sentiments.
“I’ve been writing this stupid eulogy for the past 48 hours--and I knew this would make Sonny real happy,” she said to boisterous laughter. “He got the last laugh on me.”
She then laughingly apologized for wearing the same sort of eyeglasses she criticized Sonny for wearing. “I told him, ‘I don’t care if you’re a Republican or not, you got [to] look cooler than this.’
“Some people were under the misconception that Sonny was a short man. But he was heads and tails taller than anyone else,” Cher said.
“He could see above the tallest people. He had a vision of the future and how he was going to build it, and his enthusiasm was so great that he just swept everybody along with him--not that we knew where he was going.”
She talked of a tenacious Sonny who eventually succeeded in what he wanted--even when he was continuously being beaten up by young thugs as a youngster and returned for more abuse. “I asked him why he kept going [back], and he told me that eventually he was going to wear them down,” she said.
Cher recalled how she was just 16 when she met Sonny, and how he turned them into “the most successful and beloved couple of this generation.”
“Some thought that Sonny wasn’t to be taken seriously because he allowed himself to be the butt of jokes on the ‘Sonny and Cher Show.’ What people don’t realize,” she said, breaking down, “he created Sonny and Cher.”
She told of the first time she saw Sonny, when he entered a room “and I had never seen anything like him in my life. He was Sonny way before we were ever Sonny and Cher. I saw him, and everybody else in the room was washed away, like through a soft-focus filter, kind of like when Maria saw Tony at the dance” in “West Side Story.”
“I looked at him, and he had this weird hairdo, something between Caesar and Napoleon. In fact, one of the first things he ever told me was that he was a descendant of Bonaparte, and his father had shortened the name . . . to Bono.”
Cher, addressing Mary Bono and the two young children, said she wanted to say “how proud I am of what he made himself after we separated. . . . I know that a person just doesn’t decide to become a congressman in the middle of his life, but he [did]--and it’s so typically Sonny.
“It puts me at peace to know that, in the end of his days, he had such a wonderful family life,” she said.
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