The Forbes 400 Richest People in America provides a fascinating annual look at the people and stories behind the fortunes of the super rich.  Not surprisingly, this year’s rankings as of September 2009 reveal that even the richest got poorer last year. For only the fifth time in more than 25 years, the collective net worth of The Forbes 400 fell, dropping a total of $300 billion to $1.27 trillion.

For the 16th straight year, Microsoft founder Bill Gates took the top slot, with an estimated net worth of $50 billion, down from $57 billion last year. Gates, who sells Microsoft shares every quarter, has managed to diversify 60 percent of his net worth outside of Microsoft. He and his wife spend an increasing amount of time and effort giving away their fortune, having made charitable contributions of $3.8 billion in 2009.

Number two on The Forbes 400, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, was hit harder by last year’s financial crisis. Buffett’s net worth declined $10 billion to an estimated $40 billion. He is making a comeback via investments in Goldman Sachs and GE and an overall market recovery. Despite his billions, Buffett continues to live a modest lifestyle in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Walton family name shows up four times in list’s top ten. The four heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, who started as a JC Penney clerk, have personal fortunes of approximately $20 billion each or an astounding $80 billion total. That’s down about $14 billion from last year. Dubbed “retail’s royal family,” two Walton heirs still live in unpretentious Bentonville, Arkansas.

Some Forbes 400 billionaires managed to increase their riches in 2009. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose wealth is estimated at $1.8 billion, benefitted from being part of the recession-resilient sports industry. Jones bought the Cowboys for $150 million in 1985. Three Super Bowl victories later, the team is now valued at $1.67 billion, an astonishing 865 percent return on investment.

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