WASHINGTON — For almost as long as Newt Gingrich has been in public life, an unflattering story has shadowed him: that as a rising young Republican congressman from Georgia, Gingrich ended his first marriage by serving his wife with divorce papers while she lay in a hospital bed dying of cancer.

The story has been trumpeted by Gingrich’s political opponents, endlessly recycled by the news media and repeated even by would-be allies, including social conservatives, who have long had doubts about the thrice-married former House speaker. As candidate Gingrich has risen to the top of some polls in the past few weeks, the story has inevitably surfaced again. Variations have turned up on MSNBC and in the National Journal, columns and blogs, and two British newspapers in just the past week.

Over the years, Gingrich himself has declined to comment on the story’s details, usually relying on some variation of the comment he made to the New York Times this year: “There are things in my life I’m not proud of, and there are things in my life I’m very proud of.” He has acknowledged having extramarital affairs in the past, however.

Although the thrust of the story about his first divorce is not in dispute — Gingrich’s first wife, Jackie Battley, has said previously that the couple discussed their divorce while she was in the hospital in 1980 — other aspects of it appear to have been distorted through constant retelling.

Most significant, Battley wasn’t dying at the time of the hospital visit; she is alive today. Nor was the divorce discussion in the hospital “a surprise” to Battley, as many accounts have contended. Battley, not Gingrich, had requested a divorce months earlier, according to Jackie Gingrich Cushman, the couple’s second daughter. Further, Gingrich did not serve his wife with divorce papers on the day of his visit (unlike a subpoena, divorce papers aren’t typically “served”).

Gingrich’s marriage to Battley had been troubled for many years before it dissolved 31 years ago, both parties have said. Battley, who is seven years older than Gingrich, had been Gingrich’s high school math teacher in Columbus, Ga. They began dating after he graduated and were married in 1962, when Gingrich was 19 and a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta.

In time, the marriage grew contentious, and the couple spent several years in counseling. In spring 1980, Gingrich left her, Battley told The Washington Post in 1985. Around this time, the couple gathered their children, then ages 16 and 13, around the kitchen table at their home in suburban Fairfax County, Va., and told them that they intended to divorce, Cushman wrote in a syndicated column in May (none of the family members nor Gingrich would comment for this article).

On his campaign Web site, Gingrich calls the hospital story “a vicious lie. . . . It is completely false.” However, this contradicts comments made repeatedly by Battley in two interviews after their divorce.

The hospital visit took place that summer, several months into their separation. Battley, who was undergoing treatment for uterine cancer, had had two prior surgeries, and Gingrich’s visit occurred a day after a third operation at Emory University Hospital, in which doctors removed a benign tumor, according to Cushman.

As Battley recovered, Gingrich brought the couple’s daughters to the hospital to visit her.

Accounts of what happened next vary in detail, but primary sources agree on a central point: Gingrich wanted to talk divorce with his hospitalized wife.

According to the first published account of the visit — a story by David Osborne in Mother Jones magazine in November 1984 — Gingrich went to Battley’s room with a yellow legal pad on which he had written a list of items related to the handling of the divorce.

Osborne attributed this anecdote to Lee Howell, Gingrich’s former press secretary, whom he quoted as saying: “He wanted her to sign (the list). She was still recovering from surgery, still sort of out of it, and he comes in with a yellow sheet of paper, handwritten, and wants her to sign it.”

In an interview this week, Osborne said Battley confirmed the story when he interviewed her for his article. He also said Gingrich never explicitly disputed Howell’s account.

In a follow-up story in The Post in early 1985, two months after the Mother Jones story was published, some elements of the story were different. Neither Battley nor Gingrich mentioned a yellow legal pad or a list to be signed in The Post article.

“The two girls came to see me, and said Daddy is downstairs and could he come up,” Battley told Post reporter Lois Romano at the time. “When he got there, he wanted to discuss the terms of the divorce while I was recovering from surgery.”

Osborne said Battley never mentioned that their daughters were in the room when Gingrich began the divorce discussion. “It’s possible that it could have happened on a different day” when the daughters weren’t present, he said.

In any case, Osborne said he’s seen nothing to suggest that what he described 27 years ago is essentially in error.

As Gingrich prepared to run for president this spring, his daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman offered her take for the first time. In her column, titled “Setting the Record Straight,” she criticized media coverage of the episode, saying it contained “untruths” and “misstatement of facts.”

But Cushman never spelled out what was untrue. Nor did she mention what transpired in the hospital room when she visited her mother as a 13-year-old.

“For the four people involved, (the hospital visit) was one of a million interactions and was not considered a defining event by any of us. . . . As with many divorces, it was hard and painful for all involved, but life continued,” she wrote.