William Fine dies, William M. Fine, a former magazine publisher and retailer whose research for Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller helped shape New York State’s stringent narcotics laws, died on Friday in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 86.
The cause was multiple atrophy syndrome, his daughter-in-law, Delia, said.
In the 1960s, Mr. Fine was the publisher of a dozen magazines for the Hearst Corporation, including Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan and Town & Country. As president of Bonwit Teller from 1969 to 1975, he commanded national attention for vigorously, but unsuccessfully, promoting more modest skirt lengths to women still enamored with the miniskirt.
In the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, Mr. Fine was an adviser to the State Department for the international fund to boost economic development in Northern Ireland as part of establishing peace there. The Irish Times in 2002 praised him as one of the five people most responsible for reaching a tentative peace among Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain. The others were the Northern Ireland politicians John Hume and David Trimble; Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain; and Tom King, Britain’s secretary for Northern Ireland.
His biggest impact on history resulted from a dinner party conversation with Rockefeller in early 1972, according to Joseph E. Persico, a former Rockefeller aide, in his book “Imperial Rockefeller” (1982).
At that party, Mr. Persico wrote, Mr. Fine told Rockefeller that his son had been a drug addict and that he himself yearned to do something to fight addiction. He was already chairman of Phoenix House, a drug rehabilitation program.
Rockefeller suggested that Mr. Fine visit Japan, where there was very little addiction, and report to him. Rockefeller focused on one aspect of Mr. Fine’s report: Japan’s imposition of life sentences on drug dealers.
Mr. Fine praised the Japanese for being “willing to give up the soapbox movement on human rights in order to rid the public of the evil abuses of drugs.”
This hard-nosed approach appealed to the governor, who was receiving much mail questioning whether the civil liberties of criminals were taking precedence over the prosecution of drug dealers. Rockefeller had also expressed frustration that New York had spent more than $1 billion on drug treatment and education programs, with little apparent effect.
There was a political aspect to his stance as well. At another party, Mr. Fine had a conversation with Mr. Reagan, then the governor of California. Mr. Reagan — who like Rockefeller was considering a run for the presidency in 1976 — was intrigued to hear about Mr. Fine’s report and asked for a copy. Mr. Fine asked Rockefeller, who was also at the party, if he would mind sharing the report with Mr. Reagan. Rockefeller refused.
“This thunderbolt,” Mr. Persico wrote of Rockefeller, “was to be hurled by him.”
On May 8, 1973, Rockefeller signed legislation mandating minimum prison sentences of 15 years for selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of heroin, cocaine or marijuana. The legislation was the toughest in the country, and increased the state’s prison population 500 percent over the next 20 years.
In recent years, the so-called Rockefeller drug laws have been relaxed after it was determined that they did not decrease drug use and that they crowded prisons with small-time dealers and users, who are overwhelmingly minorities.
William Michael Fine was born in Manhattan on July 1, 1926, to Joseph George Fine and the former Suzanne Moss. He grew up in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. His father was the president of the Fox Film Corporation before it merged with 20th Century Pictures.
Mr. Fine was an Army infantryman in Europe during World War II and won a Bronze Star. He majored in speech at Kenyon College in Ohio and graduated in 1950.
He started his publishing career by buying two Westchester County newspapers, The Tuckahoe Record and The Bronxville Reporter. He moved on to the McCall Corporation, publisher of McCall’s and Redbook, and joined the Hearst Corporation in 1957.
At Bonwit Teller in 1970, convinced that the midi-skirt would be successful, he ordered that 95 percent of the store’s fall fashions be midlength. He even ordered his saleswomen to wear the style. But it flopped.
Mr. Fine went on to lead several other companies, including Wamsutta Mills and Dan River Mills, and to work as a business consultant and investor. He also wrote or edited several books, including “That Day With God,” a collection of sermons preached the Sunday after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Mr. Fine’s marriages to Patricia Purdy, Susan Payson and Rosaleen Garvey ended in divorce. He is survived by his longtime partner, Kay Pick; his sons, B. William, Douglas, Timothy and Adam; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another son, Alexander, died in 2004.
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