In her day, she sailed on a sea of superlatives: the fastest, the lightest and the best ocean liner America ever produced.

When she was launched in 1952, her black-and-white hull was as dapper as a new tuxedo, her ballrooms as stylish as any crossing the North Atlantic.

Progress, in the form of airplanes and labor strikes, stilled her engines 15 years ago, and since then the luxury liner SS United States has slumbered like a giant dowager at the pier here.

Her big sleep ended today when Guernsey's, the New York auction house, began selling the insides of the ship at 9 a.m. sharp.

Before the end of the week a million items, from the sublime to the sturdy, will be sold to help pay for a $125 million renovation that is expected to transform the liner into a modern cruise ship.

Along the tables at a warehouse nearby lay the relics of a not-so-distant past when first class was luxurious, second was fine and three days, 10 hours was the fastest way across the Atlantic, a record that the liner still holds for its 3,000-mile maiden voyage.

Music stands lay next to shower fixtures, deck robes were folded neatly by silver caviar trays.

There were smoking stands and lifejackets, signal flags and celery trays, kennel blankets and snail dishes -- and no shortage of enthusiastic buyers interested in items from the popular, late art deco period.

Arlen Ettinger, president of Guernsey's, paced anxiously before the crowd of about 200, running his freckled fingers through his fringe of red hair.

"Yup! Yup!" he shouted to the auctioneer each time a bidder made a slight, expensive nod. "Let's hear those yups!" he barked to the young men whose task it was to make sure no nod went unrewarded.

Francis T. Adams III, a young man in a green pullover, had his eye trained on a caviar tray.

"It will probably go through the roof," said Adams, a veteran of many transatlantic crossings. "I don't want to think about it."

A brown-haired woman in a wheelchair sat near a table not far from the huge ship's bell. She watched and remembered a voyage 22 years ago.

"I was getting seasick," she recalled, "but our steward -- his name was Arturo Gotay -- told me that if I went below I'd never come up, so he gave me a raw lemon and made me stand on the bow outside, and do you know that I never got seasick?"

She looked at the expanse of glassware and linens. For a moment her smile faded.

"It's kind of a sad day, really," she observed, "when you think about what she was to so many people."

To her designer, Naval architect William Francis Gibbs, she was 990 feet, 12 decks high with 1,500 rooms and a crew of more than 1,000.

Two wars delayed her construction. When she finally was launched in 1952, with the federal government paying more than half of her $80 million cost with the provision that she be used as a troopship if needed, she was already doomed to obsolescence.

Nonetheless, on her maiden voyage in July of that year she slashed a full half day from the record set in 1938 by the Cunard Lines' Queen Mary, averaging better than 35 knots from New York harbor to Bishop's Rock in the Scilly Isles in three days 10 hours and 40 minutes.

She was so fast and her prow so sharp that she once impaled a whale. She could cruise at speeds approaching 50 miles an hour but, despite her charms, she was no match for airliners.

Not that she didn't try to compete. "Be an unrushable!" advised one of the ship's signs. "Take a holiday on the world's fastest ship."

The holiday ended abruptly in 1969 when the United States was retired prematurely at 18. The federal government took her over in 1973, sealed her and installed dehumidifiers that have kept her staterooms in an eerie state of preservation.

Seattle entrepreneur Richard Hadley bought the vessel for$5 million, her scrap worth, and plans to have her refurbished in West Germany and sailing as a cruise ship by autumn 1986.

Today's auction was expected to raise anywhere from $1 million to $5 million toward the cost of that renovation.

As the warehouse filled, the United States began to look a bit picked over. Times Square, the lowest deck, where crew members once lounged on laundry bags, playing cards and trading jokes, now is filled with scrap and trash.

Richard O'Leary, who served as her navigator for five years, crossing the Atlantic 252 times, stepped gingerly through the hallways and up to the bridge from which he guided the ship through fog and waves so high they once smashed the lights from the crow's nest.

"It could get rough, but we'd have broken the bow before we'd let her be beaten." To O'Leary, who came aboard the United States as a young man recently out of the Navy, she was freedom and opportunity, despite 90-hour work weeks.

He remembers the time a man jumped off the bow: "He took off his shoes. For some reason, they always took off their shoes."

The deaths: "We had a ship's doctor who diagnosed every death as angina -- even a guy who had been shot . . . "

Most of all, the romance: "We worked like monks; they had us hyped up to believe we were supermen. On gala nights, you'd be in bed and hear the swish of ball gowns outside your door, smell the perfume, hear the wine glasses clink."

O'Leary went from the United States to become a commandant at the Merchant Marine Academy and from there to the Norfolk Port Authority. Thirteen years ago he founded his own travel company.

"But I always loved this ship. Good things happened to me because of her," he said.

"The ship was always here, but now for the first time," he added looking at the audience in the warehouse, "I feel like she's really going away."