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I think you have eliminated some excellent choices without testing.
Some puppy flavors are very good, fast, and while they load into memory: they don't take very much.
Other options: TinyCore is very small and provides a desktop. Multicore (from the same site) is TinyCore WITHOUT a desktop, which makes it MONDO small and VERY fast, and fit in even LESS memory!
These are special purpose tools specifically tailored to provide the most bang in the least space. They sound very like the perfect tool for your needs.
My suggestion is to try TinyCore, and if you can get that working record the configuration details and move onto MultiCore for even better performance. While asking for suggestions is the start, FINDING a solution will only come when you TEST those suggestions!
Once you have done some testing, report back with your results. We will take what you find, and adjust our advice to others.
FYI and afternote. When I need more than Puppy, Tinycore, or Multicore can provide, I start from DEBIAN Minimal and build what I need. These have never let me down.