Submitted by the Family
NEW YORK CITY — Jonathan Hugh Mann, historian, collector of political Americana, avid Lincoln scholar and documentary filmmaker, died unexpectedly on August 15.
Jon was born October 10, 1961, in San Francisco. 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 youthful 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.
Temporarily putting his passion on hold, Jon moved 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, interviewing and learning from others, finding and curating historic and political ephemera, memorabilia, antiques.
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 — no small feat.
In addition to his writing, collecting and films, Jon leaves behind an extraordinary legacy as one of the nation’s top Lincoln experts — a “walking encyclopedia” of everything about the 16th president. Equally rich are indelible memories of Jon as an eclectic, charismatic and consummately kind and generous friend.
Small treasures he found while hunting for Lincolniana would turn up in the mail: a theater playbill or matchbook cover from your hometown; a 1920s guide to hosting ladies’ luncheons; a rare bottle of bourbon for a major birthday. His singular, often outrageous, humor could hold any audience. Jon’s tales and pranks have become well-recited legend among friends and family: the time he ordered a pizza to be delivered just as he accepted his college diploma; or the fake historical association he created to convince a group of gauche newcomers trying to rename his neighborhood NoPeSta (north of Penn Station) to back off.
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 20 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.
Professionally, Jon lived by the mantra that “the provenance is king” — the thesis, in collecting circles, that any object, however fascinating, is ultimately only worth the stories testifying to its authenticity. Jon would present you with the key to Lincoln’s law office, or a dance card to his first Inaugural Ball or a playbill to Ford’s Theater the night of the assassination — some of the most immediately fascinating memorabilia you’d ever touched — but he’d hook you with the stories, step-by-step, of how it came to be in your hands in the here and now. Jon’s life also abided by that same archival principle. In his presence there was never a doubt you were talking to the real article: he had story on story on story that proved it.
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; siblings Uma Channer and Tobey Channer; and mourned by hundreds of friends whose lives he touched.
For information about a memorial celebration, or donations in Jon’s memory, email email@example.com.