Jonathan Hugh Mann, historian, collector of political Americana, avid Lincoln scholar, and documentary filmmaker, died unexpectedly on August 15, 2023, at the age of 61.
Jon was born October 10, 1961, in San Francisco, California. He is a graduate of the Cate School and Vassar College, where he earned a BA in history, writing his thesis on Nazi saboteurs who landed on Long Island during World War II. After graduation, he managed to track down and interview the last surviving saboteur. This adventure as historian-detective drew on Jon’s investigative talent, persistence, and innate curiosity about people and things, igniting a life-long passion for gathering and documenting the stories and collections of ordinary people living extraordinary lives.
Jon temporarily put his passion on hold, moving to New York City to earn an MBA from NYU Sloan and to work in finance at L.F. Rothschild, Unterberg, Towbin. In 1991, he created a PBS roundtable on business ethics, featuring luminaries including Walter Cronkite. But his interests lay in historic pursuits.
Much like his hero Abraham Lincoln, an autodidact, Jon taught himself archival skills, immersed himself in historical research, and became an expert in Lincoln and his era. Jon founded The Rail Splitter, an annual journal written by and for worldwide collectors of Lincoln artifacts and memorabilia. On the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, he curated, designed, and built a popular exhibit on the president at Federal Hall in New York City.
Jon’s exploration of the adopted city he loved — he was a zealous walker and consummate New Yorker who could lead a tour of almost any corner of the five boroughs — inspired him to return to filmmaking. In 2010, he co-founded Provenance Productions and began producing documentaries. All have appeared on PBS, and many have garnered awards at film festivals. His films often highlighted people or places he discovered on his rambles. Provenance Productions’ first feature-length documentary, The Oratorio, focused on a historic church Jon regularly passed. It had been Martin Scorsese’s childhood parish, and Jon managed to charm Scorsese into narrating the film.
Jon leaves behind an extraordinary legacy as an eclectic, charismatic, kind and generous friend, whose singular, often outrageous, humor could hold any audience. His tales and pranks have become well-recited legend among friends.
Jon lived fully in the present. No connection was too weak, nor relationship too circumstantial, to forfeit his interest or care. He believed every person and every historic object had a story to tell, and one way or another, he would probe until the stories emerged. Any five-minute walk with Jon was likely to become an hour-long adventure, as he paused every twenty paces to strike up a conversation with someone he recognized, or whom he felt might be interesting; to explain the architectural provenance of any building – and to admire every dog.
In a cruel irony, Jon was taking one of his regular walks one August afternoon, chatting with passers-by, when a stranger approached and assaulted him, leaving him with injuries that led to his death.
Jon is survived by his father and stepmother, Bruce and Naomi Mann; brother Andrew Mann; stepsiblings Joshua Rattner and Jessica Rattner; niblings Uma Channer and Tobey Channer; and mourned by hundreds of friends whose lives he touched.