By Barbara Wilkins
August 11, 1975 12:00 PM

When Cher says I taught her everything she knows, it’s true,” says Sonny Bono in his 20-room Bel Air mansion. The house is strangely austere and quiet now that Cher has moved a few blocks away into a larger but similar mansion (which, like Bono’s, once belonged to Tony Curtis). “But,” adds Sonny, her ex-husband and packager, “I did not teach her everything I know.”

Curiously, since Cher’s ricochet romances post-Bono, America is taking Sonny virtually as seriously and sympathetically as he does himself. He is no longer to be confused with the goofball goombah, the leaning tower of pizza, of the act that once made the Bonos the first family of prime time. Simultaneously, too, Sonny and Cher have helped restore the thrill of marital misadventure to Hollywood where it belongs. So much for Lee Salk, Christina Onassis and Ann Landers.

For months it seemed Sonny was on the skids after Cher walked out of their 10-year union in favor of record executive David Geffen. Worse, perhaps, Sonny got the first crack at a solo flight on the airwaves—and promptly nosedived, only to be put down by the Geffen-orchestrated revival of Cher’s own highly successful TV show.

Now, Cher’s amorous experiments have revived the dormant Hollywood sport of tag-team marriage. Immediately after their divorce became final, Cher married laid-back rock star Gregg Allman. Nine days later, it was all a “mistake,” and she filed for divorce. Then she rushed off to Buffalo to rejoin Allman, who was, according to some accounts, in a “wasted condition.” Sonny suspects she will give it one more try. Meanwhile, Cher was a week late reporting back for the season’s tapings, and her producer George Schlatter said, “Working with her is just like it used to be with Judy Garland.”

Bono meanwhile had been an adoring if moping part-time father to their 6-year-old Chastity. His love life was ultra-dim. Then two months ago along came a stunning 21-year-old model named Susie Coelho whose parents were born in India. Suddenly, it was Bono, the son of a factory worker and a beautician from lower middle-class Inglewood, Calif., and not Cher, whose act was truly together.

Exuberantly affectionate with both his lady and his daughter, Sonny has also maintained a close friendship with Cher, who has relied on him throughout their breakup for counsel and support ($32,000 a month). It is a familiar role for Sonny, 40, who over the years has been father, husband and brother to Cher, now 29. “People don’t understand our relationship,” he says. “I talk to her all the time. We’re closer than anyone will suspect.”

Bono has not only helped keep Cher’s faculties intact since the breakup, but also worked himself out of his own depression. Last week he shared the bill with Dionne Warwick at the Westbury Music Fair outside New York City, and is now developing a TV sitcom starring himself for ABC. Then, there is Susie. “I feel real good about her. She’s the first girl since Cher who contributes to my emotional being. I’ve been lonely until Susie. Now, I feel strong. I’ve got some things in the emotional bank.”

There was a parental (and at first, Platonic) thread with Cher from the beginning. “Cher was more mature at 16 than she is now. She is getting to do a lot of things that she didn’t get to do then,” he says. That was in the mid-’60s when Sonny, father of a 5-year-old girl, met Cher, the pouty, but worldly-wise waif who had been perfecting her autograph for stardom since she was 12. After Cher moved in, they developed a complicated arrangement to fool her mother when she visited: “She would take all my clothes and throw them out the window, onto her friend’s patio. It was really a bore, collecting them,” he says.

Soon they were ooh-ing and ah-ing in producer Phil Spector’s studios as backup vocalists, the prelude to their monstrously lucrative string of hits written by Sonny on shirt cardboards and beginning in 1965 with I Got You, Babe. But by the late ’60s acid rock had drowned out their two-part harmonic whine, and Sonny guided them into two trite movies—and massive debt. (“I never let Cher know we were in trouble. I took out a loan on our furniture. I was borrowing money from our chauffeur.”) He was “sure she was a star” and convinced her to go on the road with him, developing the rapid-fire put-down repartee that led to Las Vegas and, then, to their TV hegemony in 1971.

“Cher wants me to do her show now, but it would have to be part of an overall settlement,” he says. One obstacle is the $24-million suit Sonny has brought against Cher and her ex-Svengali, Geffen, whom he charges with inducing an impressionable Cher to break her contract with Sonny. “I can’t fight with her on one front and perform with her on the other.”

Yet Sonny adds, “I wish her well, I really do. Our 10 years were the happiest of my life. I don’t regret a moment of it. I love her. I ate, lived, breathed the three of us. But I understand when something is over, it’s over.” The phone rings through the empty house in Bel Air. Chastity races from Sonny’s lap and picks up the phone. It is Cher in New York. “She always calls when she’s in trouble,” he says, hitching up his pants before answering. “She always calls.”