AVA: My Story By Ava Gardner Bantam. 315 pp. $19.95

AVA GARDNER died before she finished this book and it was completed from beyond the grave, so to speak, through her Living Trust. The result seems often packaged rather than written, assembled more than edited -- a collection of taped remembrances with scattered chapters by relatives and friends. But if you can kick off your shoes and get used to being called "Honey," you'll be sorry when it all has to end.

The story unfolds with the childlike candor that remained with Ava Gardner all her life. Beneath the fiery sex-goddess whose career spanned more than 60 movies from "The Sun Also Rises" and "Mogambo" to "Bhowani Junction," "On the Beach" and "Mayerling" was a painfully shy share-cropper's daughter from Grabtown, North Carolina, so terrified by her work that she had to sip lemon juice between scenes so her dry mouth wouldn't click when she spoke her lines. Her off-screen romances with movie stars, bullfighters and high-profile suitors like Howard Hughes kept the paparazzi hopping for 40 years on five continents. Yet all she really sought, she keeps saying, was a good man to stay home and cook for. She lived and died a victim of the image laid on her by MGM, which lured her to Hollywood as a teenager and groomed her for stardom, which became a sort of prison that she forever ran away from but never escaped. "What I'd really like to say about stardom," she writes, "is that it gave me everything I never wanted."

Her beauty was both her fortune and her undoing. She seemed unaware of its power until it was gone. In her heyday, strong men took one look across a crowded room and toppled over like trees. Poet Robert Graves wrote her a poem. Billionaire Howard Hughes pursued her off and on for 20 years. Mickey Rooney couldn't take his eyes off her from the day she first toured the MGM lot. He took her dancing at Ciro's and the Trocadero, fed her caviar and zombies and proposed. Louis B. Mayer, their boss, wept when Mickey broke the news. "It must have been a great scene," she notes, "because Mr. Mayer and Mickey were rated the best criers in Hollywood." An MGM press agent went on their honeymoon. She was 19; Mickey was 21.

It turned out she got along better with his mother. "I got along with the mothers of all the men I married," she confides. "If only I'd gotten along half as well with the husbands, I'd still be married to as many of them as the law allows."

Marriage to Mickey lasted little more than a year, during which they ate fewer than a dozen meals together at home. "We were babies, just children, and our lives were run by a lot of other people." MGM owned them, and if they weren't on the road selling war bonds, they were publicizing films. Ava paid her share of the divorce costs, waived her share of the property, settled for $25,000 and almost immediately took up with rich, eccentric, reclusive Howard Hughes, who paid for her golf, tennis and skeet-shooting lessons. If he traveled with her himself, he carried custom-made white cardboard boxes in lieu of luggage. He never bathed, smelled terrible and dressed like a tramp. She once offered to buy him a suit. In one of their frequent battles she decked him with a bronze bell and was about to finish him off with a chair when her maid stopped her. But he kept coming back for more. He heaped jewels on her by the crate and one Kashmiri ("the very best") sapphire and diamond ring that she guesses would be worth a million by now. But she turned away. "I wanted to be in love, not bought for a damn box of jewelry." ARTIE SHAW found her the most beautiful woman he'd ever met, and set about improving her mind. Until then, she claims, Gone With the Wind was the only book she'd ever read.

Artie gave her Freud's Interpretation of Dreams for openers, with The Magic Mountain for dessert. ("I thought I'd never finish that damn book.") When he caught her reading Forever Amber, he threw it across the room. He hired a Russian grandmaster to teach her chess.

Inspired by all this, and the discovery that she had a respectable IQ, she enrolled in classes at UCLA. "I had to be careful about this. Enrolling and physically attending classes might have put a strain on Metro's publicity implications that all its starlets were ladies of the highest intelligence and accomplishments." She settled for extension courses at home in English literature and economics.

But alas, "Just like with Mickey, our interests were poles apart." After a year and a week of marriage, Artie got a quickie divorce in Mexico and married the author of -- yes -- Forever Amber. Ava is philosophical. "Thanks to Artie," she writes, "I read Death in the Afternoon, which meant I had a little something to talk to Hemingway about, not to mention having a leg up on the bullfighters who entered my life." (Luis Miguel Dominguin spoke no English when he entered her life; Ava Gardner no Spanish. "We communicated what counted.")

Frank Sinatra was her last attempt at marriage. Their quarrels and reconciliations spanned the continent and several oceans. Their reunions while she was filming "Mogambo" in Africa led to two London abortions in a row.

By the time she was 33, fed up with Hollywood and the stresses of stardom, she moved to Spain. She still made some films when she "needed the loot," but her heart had never been in the work in the first place.

"I often felt that if only I could act, everything about my life and career would have been different," she writes. "But I was never an actress -- none of us kids at Metro were. We were just good to look at." The truth is, she adds, "the only time I'm happy is when I'm doing absolutely nothing."

So there is less here than one might wish about life among the stars on the set. There are occasional gripping glimpses like draining the ten-million-gallon Tarzan Jungle Lake on the MGM lot to build the set for "Showboat" and life on location in Mexico or in the 300-tent encampment for "Mogambo" in darkest Africa, with guns issued to all the cast and gratuities paid to witch doctors for favorable omens.

For the most part, though, Ava Gardner's own bewildered life in MGM's tinsel serfdom held more drama than her films. Anne Chamberlin is a Washington writer.