If you believe the talking heads, it sounds like the worst of the worst is over for the “Great Recession.” Whether or not that’s true, it doesn’t mean that everyone is suffering or has suffered. Even during our country’s worst economic downturn, some folks still knew how to make a buck—many bucks, in fact.
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 (adjusted for inflation), Ruth was at the top of the heap. While possibly apocryphal, when Ruth found out that his $80,000 (more than $1 mil today) a year salary was $5,000 more than that of President Hoover, he is reported to have said, “Well, I had a better year than he did.”
While not using methods we’d endorse, John Dillinger and his compatriots managed to compile more than $3 million in today’s dollars. Robbing dozens of banks and killing police officers in the process, Dillinger is not exactly what we’d call “successful,” but the brash, charming, and audacious Dillinger became just the type of anti-hero that the bedraggled, unemployed masses loved. He was shot to death in Chicago by FBI agents in 1934.
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 more suburban, larger, self-serve food markets with room for automobile parking and allowances for new-fangled home refrigeration. Within two years, Cullen’s stores (known as King Kullen Grocery) were doing more than $6 million in revenue (more than $75 million today). His motto: “Pile it high: sell it cheap.”
The diminutive song-and-dance man turned tough guy turned song-and-dance man rose like a rocket through Hollywood in the 1930s. He went from a $500-a-week contract player in 1930 to one of the top ten moneymakers in Hollywood during 1935. In 1933 he was making the equivalent of $40,000 a week. His rise was so fast that he offered to do a few movies for free just to get out of a five-year contract with Warner Brothers.
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 year, and Darrow became the world’s first millionaire game designer.
The King of Swing may have been Benny Goodman, but the King of Pop in the 1930s was Glenn Miller. From his humble beginnings as a traveling trombone player—and superb high school football player being named “best left end in Colorado”—Miller rose to put together his first band in 1937. The band fell apart. Undaunted as any good left end would be, he reorganized a new group in 1938 and quickly found success. With hits like “In the Mood,” “String Of Pearls,” and “Moonlight Serenade,” Miller and his band found themselves on radio, in the movies and commanding a salary of nearly $20k a week . In 1942, just at the height of his popularity, Miller disbanded his group and volunteered for the U.S. Army, where he formed a military band to help build morale during the war. He was lost during a flight over the channel from England to France in 1944. The plane was never found.
Sure, all we remember of Hughes is the insanely long fingernails, Kleenex box hats, and storing his own urine in mayonnaise jars, but there was a whole crazy stellar career before that. After the ‘29 crash, seemingly unfazed, he made 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, he 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 totaled a reported $2.5 billion. Maybe there’s something to that whole urine saving thing.
An amazing beneficiary of good timing and great business acumen, Getty created an oil empire out an inheritance of $500,000 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.
The Great Depression was Gene Autry’s golden era. Rising from a local radio yodeler (nearly every station had their own yodeler back then) to a hit machine throughout the decade, Autry appeared in over 40 movies, becoming the top western draw at the box office. The singing cowboy, not content to be just a yodeler, albeit a very successful one, later created a TV and radio broadcasting empire in the Western United States and bought the California Angels.
Joe Kennedy, Sr., 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 other of his ilk who helped to create the unstable markets that brought about the financial calamities of the ’30s however, Kennedy knew when to get out. Out of the stock market, Old Joe invested his money in real estate, liquor, and movie studios, generating gaudy profits and cementing his family’s place in the highest financial echelon of American society.
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