Bono Had a Dependence on Painkillers, Widow Says


The late Rep. Sonny Bono nursed a secret dependence on prescription painkillers and was taking up to 20 pills a day about the time he skied into a tree on a South Lake Tahoe slope in January, according to Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs), his widow and successor in Congress.

“I am 100% convinced that is why he died,” Bono said in an interview with TV Guide magazine.

Her disclosure stunned many acquaintances of her late husband, and some questioned why she made her comments.


Bono was unavailable for direct comment Thursday because she was participating in the House Judiciary Committee’s daylong impeachment hearing. But in a statement released by her office, she said that she merely had “answered truthfully” when an interviewer asked if Sonny Bono ever had a drug or alcohol abuse problem.

“It was part of our private life and, until recently, known only to those closest to the Bono family,” her statement said. “However, I believe that it would be unfair to the many individuals who battle with this insidious problem . . . to try to ignore this issue and deceive people about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.”

In her interview in the Nov. 28 TV Guide, Bono acknowledges that she owes her current position to her husband’s fame (after winning his seat in a special election earlier this year, she won her own two-year term on Nov. 3). But she also described her marriage as “a very difficult 12 years of my life.”

Her depiction of the onetime entertainer and former Palm Springs mayor as erratic and insecure offered a jarring contrast to the public image of Sonny Bono, who was described after his death as perhaps the most beloved member of the storied GOP Class of 1994, which swept the party into control of Congress.

“People don’t know . . . the true struggle that was there,” Bono said in the interview. “His mood swings were so hard. In the middle of the night, he would wake up and be angry about something.”

Because of a chronic, painful back condition, Sonny Bono began taking prescription painkillers on and off as far back as the 1960s, said Frank Cullen, the late congressman’s press secretary who now works in the same capacity for Mary Bono.

Cullen said that Bono was taking the pills in the spring of 1995 as he was about to undergo surgery. In that operation, the press secretary said, surgeons removed a growth on Bono’s fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae.

Mary Bono indicated in her interview that her late husband was on Vicodin, Percodan and Percocet--three powerful painkillers--as well as Valium, a sedative.

The drugs can cause drowsiness, cloud judgment and diminish coordination, said Dr. Philip O. Anderson, director of drug information services at UC San Diego Medical Center. “It could be dangerous to drive or do anything that required rapid coordination or quick thinking” after taking the medications, he said.

In her interview, Bono noted that an autopsy of her husband’s body showed his blood level was “in the therapeutic range for Vicodin and Valium.”

Among those expressing shock at Bono’s comments was Palm Springs Mayor Frank Bogert. “I’m amazed she’s talking about this,” he said, adding that he never saw Sonny Bono act in a way that might suggest drug abuse.

Conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn, who defeated Sonny Bono in the 1992 Republican Senate primary and then became his close friend, said: “I’m not only surprised but I’m ill--if it’s even true. Sonny and I were extremely close and we talked about a lot of things, not just political but personal, and I never saw or heard any evidence of anything like that.”

But Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) said Thursday that he had noticed certain mood swings on the late congressman’s part, though he thought nothing of it at the time.

“Since this has come out, it made sense,” Dreier said.

In the magazine interview, Bono attributed her husband’s fall from a 16-foot-high balcony two years before his death to drug use, and said that after that accident she considered leaving him.

“But I chose to stay and work it out because I truly loved him. I guess I matured enough to realize that he truly loved me and that he was battling his own demons.”

She also said that Sonny Bono’s ex-wife and former singing partner, Cher, became an understanding and steady source of comfort. At one point, she said, Cher advised her to “get out of there” because “she knew how bad it was.”

Times staff writers Tom Gorman in Riverside and Faye Fiore in Washington contributed to this story.