Karyn and Bill Frist in the Senate chamber on the day of his final speech there in December 2006. The couple is flanked by two of their three sons, Harrison and Bryan. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The split of the highly regarded political couple — A-listers in both Washington and Nashville — was surprising but not scandalous. (Cause? Those catch-all “irreconcilable differences.”) What was unusual were six months of angry denials that anything was amiss in their marriage — despite the fact that they hadn’t been spotted together for the better part of a year.

The Frists, often hailed for their devoted partnership, spent 12 years in Washington as Republican leaders in the city’s political and social life. After he officially left the Senate in 2007, they returned to Tennessee where his family runs The Hospital Corporation of America, one of the largest private health care companies in the world. He re-branded himself as an expert on health care policy and issues and pens a weekly national column for the Week.

Friends in D.C., who worked closely with the couple on a variety of philanthropic and charitable causes, noticed when Bill Frist attended the Alfalfa Club dinner in January without Karyn, who traditionally joined him for the annual reunion of political and corporate power brokers. In Nashville, there were whispers about the couple: The last time they appeared in public together was September 2011; Karyn attended Nashville’s Frist Gala in May without her husband — or her wedding rings.

What looked like a separation was not, insisted a Frist spokesman, who repeatedly stated they were still together and happily married. But something was clearly wrong: The always-gracious Frist was all smiles at a Washington tribute for former Senate majority leaders Howard Baker and Bob Dole in March — until a reporter asked about his marriage. “I’m not talking,” he said angrily, then beelined for the door and jumped into a cab instead of waiting for his car.

The Frists finally gave up Friday, when Karyn filed for divorce in a Nashville court. The earlier denials? “There were matters that Dr. and Mrs. Frist were working constructively to attempt to resolve and they were hopeful of a different outcome,” according to a statement released Tuesday by family spokeswoman Beth Seigenthaler Courtney. They declined to comment on details for the split and asked for “prayers, understanding and privacy at this time.” The couple has three grown sons.

AP: Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and wife, Karyn, end marriage after 31 years

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