9 People Who Made a Fortune During the Depression

Babe Ruth pitching for Boston.
Babe Ruth pitching for Boston. / Frances P. Burke, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Even during the worst economic downturn in modern American history, some folks still managed to make a buck—many bucks, in fact. Here are 9 people who earned a fortune during the Great Depression.

1. Babe Ruth

The Sultan of Swat was never shy about conspicuous consumption. While baseball players' salaries were nowhere near as high in the '30s as they are today, Ruth was at the top of the heap. While possibly apocryphal, during salary negotiations, when Ruth found out his $80,000-a-year-salary (more than $1 million today) was $5000 more than that of President Hoover, he is reported to have said, "I had a better year than he did." He did, however, take a pay cut.

2. John Dillinger

By robbing banks, Dillinger and his compatriots managed to acquire around $500,000 (about $7 million in today's dollars). They’re not methods we’d endorse, but the brash, charming, and audacious figure became just the type of anti-hero the bedraggled, unemployed masses loved. FBI agents shot and killed him in Chicago in 1934.

3. Michael J. Cullen

A man unfamiliar to most, yet whose modern ideas revolutionized American life, Cullen changed our retail landscape by creating the modern supermarket. A former executive at Kroger Grocery & Bakery Co., Cullen struck out on his own in 1930 after higher-ups rejected his ideas for less centrally located, larger, self-serve grocery stores with room for automobile parking and selling hundreds of items at or just barely above cost. Within two years, Cullen's stores (known as King Kullen Grocery) were doing more than $6 million in sales (more than $100 million today).

4. James Cagney

Studio publicity photo of actor James Cagney.
Studio publicity photo of actor James Cagney. / Warner Bros. Studio, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The former vaudeville star rose like a rocket through Hollywood in the 1930s. He went from a $500-a-week contract player in 1930 to one of the movie industry’s top ten moneymakers during 1935. By the mid-1930s, Cagney was making $4,500 per week. (nearly $60,000 in today’s dollars). His rise was so fast, he offered to do a few movies for free just to get out of a five-year contract with Warner Brothers.

5. Charles Darrow

Finding himself out of work after the crash of '29, Darrow spent a few years perfecting—though some would say pilfering—a little parlor game that eventually came to be known as Monopoly. Within a year of registering the patent, Parker Brothers was selling 20,000 units a week, and Darrow became the world's first millionaire game designer.

6. Howard Hughes

Sure, we mostly remember that later in his life, legends told of Hughes having extremely long fingernails, wearing Kleenex box hats, and storing his own urine in mayonnaise jars. But prior to that, he also had a stellar career. After the '29 crash, seemingly unfazed, he released Hell's Angels—then the most expensive movie ever—at a cost of $3.8 million. In 1932, at the height of the nation's economic woes, the businessman formed the Hughes Aircraft Company. He built the company into a major-league defense supplier and by the time he died in 1976, his fortune was estimated to be as high as $2.5 billion.

7. J. Paul Getty

An amazing beneficiary of good timing and great business acumen, Getty created an oil empire out of a $500,000 inheritance he received in 1930. With oil stocks massively depressed, he snatched them up at bargain prices and created an oil conglomerate to rival Rockefeller. Throughout the 20th century, he became a billionaire many times over.

8. Gene Autry

Gene Autry and Champion.
Gene Autry and Champion. / CBS/Columbia Broadcasting System, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Great Depression was Autry's golden era. After signing a record deal with the forerunner of Columbia Records in 1929, he rose from a local radio yodeler to a hit machine throughout the 1930s. Autry later appeared in over 90 movies, becoming the top western draw at the box office. The “Singing Cowboy,” not content to be just a yodeler, later created a TV and radio broadcasting empire in the Western United States and owned the California Angels.

9. Joseph Kennedy, Sr.

Kennedy, patriarch of the Camelot clan, built up a tidy sum in the 1920s with a hearty amount of speculation, peppered with insider trading and market manipulation. Unlike many others of his ilk who helped create the unstable markets that brought about the financial calamities of the '30s—and ultimately lost their wealth—Kennedy knew when to get out and sold most of his stock before the 1929 crash. Out of the stock market, Old Joe invested his money in real estate and liquor (though rumors of him being involved in bootlegging are considered unlikely), generating gaudy profits and cementing his family's place in the highest financial echelon of American society.