Johnston was born in Sacramento, California.
He started out at the Sacramento Bee in 1906. From 1912 to 1928 he wrote for The New York Times, from 1928 to 1932 for the New York Herald Tribune, and then he wrote articles for The Saturday Evening Post and The New Yorker magazines. He won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Reporting for "his reports of the proceedings of the convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in December, 1922."
- The Great Goldwyn (Random House, 1937) — about Samuel Goldwyn
- The Case of Erle Stanley Gardner (William Morrow, 1947) — originally publ. in The Saturday Evening Post
- The Legendary Mizners (Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953), illustrated by Reginald Marsh — about Addison Mizner and Wilson Mizner
- Associated Press (November 24, 1950). "Death Claims Alva Johnston". St. Joseph News-Press. Retrieved October 22, 2012.
- Erin Overbey (March 4, 2010). "Eighty-Five from the Archive: Alva Johnston". The New Yorker. Retrieved April 21, 2011.
- "Reporting". The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved November 8, 2013.
- "The Press: The Best Reporter". TIME. May 28, 1923. Retrieved April 21, 2011.
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